Shining the spotlight on unprecedented abuse

SHINING THE SPOTLIGHT ON UNPRECEDENTED ABUSE…. There is arguably no greater obstacle to effective policymaking than Republican abuse of Senate filibuster rules. But most of the country, which understandably has limited interest in legislative procedure, has no idea that the problem exists. Worse, the media has accepted filibuster abuse as routine — as if the Senate has always operated with mandatory supermajorities.

It’s created a truly absurd legislative system. In order for necessary changes to happen, members will need to feel pressure to restore majority rule to the Senate. In order for them to feel pressure, the public will have to reject the dysfunctional and borderline-dangerous status quo. In order for the public to feel outraged, the mainstream political discourse will have to shine a light on the problem.

I’m delighted that this is starting to begin in earnest. Just over the last couple of days, the issue has garnered attention from a variety of prominent voices. James Fallows described the explosion in the number of filibusters as a “basic and dangerous threat to the ability of any elected American government to address the big issues of its time.”

For most of the first 190 years of the country’s operation, U.S. Senators would, in unusual circumstances, try to delay a vote on measures they opposed by “filibustering” — talking without limit or using other stalling techniques…. The significant thing about filibusters through most of U.S. history is that they hardly ever happened. But since roughly the early Clinton years, the threat of filibuster has gone from exception to routine, for legislation and appointments alike, with the result that doing practically anything takes not 51 but 60 votes.

In his print column today, Paul Krugman pointed to the problem to highlight the fact that this one Senate tactic has made the entire United States government “ominously dysfunctional.”

We need fundamental financial reform. We need to deal with climate change. We need to deal with our long-run budget deficit. What are the chances that we can do all that — or, I’m tempted to say, any of it — if doing anything requires 60 votes in a deeply polarized Senate?

Some people will say that it has always been this way, and that we’ve managed so far. But it wasn’t always like this. Yes, there were filibusters in the past — most notably by segregationists trying to block civil rights legislation. But the modern system, in which the minority party uses the threat of a filibuster to block every bill it doesn’t like, is a recent creation. […]

Nobody should meddle lightly with long-established parliamentary procedure. But our current situation is unprecedented: America is caught between severe problems that must be addressed and a minority party determined to block action on every front. Doing nothing is not an option — not unless you want the nation to sit motionless, with an effectively paralyzed government, waiting for financial, environmental and fiscal crises to strike.

E.J. Dionne Jr. wants the political world to wake up.

In a normal democracy, such majorities would work their will, a law would pass, and champagne corks would pop. But everyone must get it through their heads that thanks to the bizarre habits of the Senate, we are no longer a normal democracy.

Because of a front of Republican obstruction and the ludicrous idea that all legislation requires a supermajority of 60 votes, power has passed from the majority to tiny minorities, sometimes minorities of one.

Late last week, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, while talking about health care generally, was asked where progressives should be “putting their energies.” Stern immediately turned his attention to the filibuster: “The Senate is distorting democracy. They’ve set up a system that does not represent what the American people want–and not just on health care. It sets the stage for America to be unable to meet the challenges on everything from jobs to energy to trade to foreign policy…. I think that is morally wrong. It hurts America, diminishes its ability to solve problems.”

The point isn’t that these prominent voices are breaking new ground. On the contrary, all of these sentiments are no doubt familiar to even casual readers of prominent progressive blogs.

Rather, the point is the systemic problem is starting to become more widely recognized. That’s encouraging.