Harkin, Shaheen Eye Filibuster Reform

HARKIN, SHAHEEN EYE FILIBUSTER REFORM…. Nearly 15 years ago, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Joe Lieberman presented a plan to eliminate the Senate filibuster and allow Congress to pass bills by majority rule. The bill failed miserably, 76 to 19.

About a month ago, the progressive Iowan signaled his interest in trying again. In about 20 minutes, Harkin and his new co-sponsor will kick off a new effort to allow the legislative branch of the government to function again. A press statement from Harkin’s office reads:

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) will be joined by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) at a press conference this afternoon following the introduction of their bill to reform Senate rules that have been abused by the minority to create record gridlock. Senator Harkin introduced a similar bill in 1995, when the Democratic Party was in the minority.

“In an economic climate that has been devastating for Americans, it’s time for the Senate to get moving on a jobs bill, on financial regulatory reform, and on health care,” Senator Harkin said. “The minority party has ground Senate business to a halt by abusing the rules, and it’s time to reform the process.”

In the 1950s, there was an average of one filibuster per Congress. Last Congress, motions were filed to end filibusters a record 139 times, and they continue at a similar pace through 2009 (67 cloture motions last year).

If approved, the measure would not do away with extended debate altogether. Harkin proposes a new procedural model: the first go-around, the minority could demand a 60-vote majority, as is the case now. But if 60 votes aren’t there to end debate, a week or so later, 57 votes could bring the bill to the floor for a vote. If 57 votes aren’t there, it drops again and again, and after a month or so, a bare majority could approve cloture.

Does Harkin/Shaheen stand much of a chance? It’s best to keep expectations low — it would take 67 votes to approve Harkin’s measure, which makes it extremely unlikely that this will succeed. But I can’t wait to see what kind of support this generates, and exactly who does (and does not) sign on as co-sponsors.

Also note, the existence of the legislation creates an opportunity for a larger public debate. Most of the public assumes that if a majority of the House, a majority of the Senate, and the White House all support a piece of legislation, the bill becomes law — unaware of the fact that this is no longer the case. The more attention Harkin/Shaheen gets, the better the chance of informing the public.

Likewise, the public also doesn’t realize that abuse has gotten completely out of control — from 1949 to 1970, there were 30 cloture votes. In just 2009, there were 39. That’s insane.

My suggestion to Harkin’s office is to come up with a helpful frame for the debate. I recommend: “restoration of majority rule.” When a bill reaches the Senate floor, they should count up the “yea” votes, count up the “nea” votes, and the bigger total wins. This is the way the Senate was designed to operate; this is the way the Senate used to operate.

That sounds fair, doesn’t it?