One reason for American resentment towards Congress, and one reason Barack Obama’s promises of greater transparency in legislation and government resonated so well with the voting public, is the arcane set of rules, regulations and stipulations that govern debate in the House and the Senate. The latter is where the filibuster has come in for some severe criticism lately, given its use by both Democrats and Republicans in recent years to delay the other party’s agenda from coming to the floor. Likewise, many have criticized the wonderfully named ‘Mae West hold,” recently used by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) to block federal appointments to various offices in his state until he received proper quid pro quo in the form of a military base.
Then there’s the case of Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), whose antics on the Senate floor are possibly the greatest case of childish overreaction since Congressman Preston Brooks felt it would be beneath him to actually duel Senator Charles Sumner. Rather than allow Congress to extend unemployment benefits two days before they were set to expire, Bunning stood his ground, responding to the pleas of his colleagues with ‘tough shit,” and had the gall to complain about missing a Kentucky basketball game while doing it.
Obviously obstructionism is a huge problem in modern American politics, especially because the voting coalitions viable in Kennedy’s or Johnson’s days are no longer present in the current parties. They are divided sharply not only by economic but also by social ideology. The inner workings of the Senate have been thrown into greater relief now that the Democratic majority in the Senate has had particularly uphill battles in its attempts to pass the President’s agenda. This includes defections from its own party line, the curious case of Benjamin Nelson (D-NE) and a streak of Republican holds and filibusters the latter of which had already broken all previous records back in December 2009, according to remarks made by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Of course, given that a three-fifths majority is required to change Senate rules, and that both parties are terrified of being completely shut out of the legislative process once in the minority the case for debate reform is far more easily argued than finished.
Aside from ideological convictions and pork-barrel politics, there may yet be another reason why senators in recent times feel far more willing to use the filibuster. It is no longer required of them to actually speak against any bill on the floor, but merely to make the majority leader aware that they intend to filibuster it. Debate is immediately brought to a grinding halt unless sixty votes can be scrounged up for cloture. In typical Senate fashion, this rule change was a win-win situation for everyone, except the electorate: Filibustering senators no longer had to risk their precious vocal chords or sleep in shifts, and likewise, the rest of the august chamber no longer had to hang around and listen to them.
Maybe what the Senate needs, to get over its love of obstruction, is a return to core debate principles. Legislative minorities play a valuable role in moderating political agendas, but they should not be permitted to obstruct them wholesale through notes to the majority leader’s desk. Whichever party is in the opposition, it should be forced to debate legislation on the floor, or failing that, at least to take the floor. Perhaps then, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, Americans will find out which senators are the scoundrels, which are the idiots and just how much they’re all poltroons.
Morales is a member of
the class of 2011.