Efforts to rein in the filibuster get more attention

EFFORTS TO REIN IN THE FILIBUSTER GET MORE ATTENTION…. The more the public understands that majority-rule doesn’t exist in the Senate, the greater the likelihood that there may be a demand for change. With that in mind, I was glad to see this piece on the front page of today’s LA Times.

The Senate filibuster has emerged as the bane of President Obama’s legislative agenda, igniting anger among liberals over a tactic that is now hogtying Congress even on noncontroversial bills. […]

It is the Senate’s own rules, not the Constitution, that set 60 votes as the benchmark for cutting off debate. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate health committee, argues that current rules have made it too hard for Democrats to exercise the mandate they received from the voters in 2008.

“Elections should have consequences,” Harkin said in a recent letter to his colleagues urging a change in filibuster rules. “Even when a party loses, it too easily can prevent the majority elected to govern from legislating.”

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) has launched a petition drive urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to push for cutting from 60 to 55 the number of votes needed to cut off a filibuster.

“Why should launching wars and cutting taxes for the rich require only 50 votes, while saving lives requires 60?” asked Grayson, who cited a number of major bills that were passed by the Senate with less than 60 votes while President George W. Bush was in office.

The LAT noted, accurately, that Democrats “used the filibuster against Republicans when the GOP was in the majority.” That, however, suggests Republican tactics of late are somehow routine — as if every congressional minority operates this way as a matter of course.

That’s fundamentally inaccurate. Republicans didn’t invent the filibuster; it’s a tool minority caucuses have been using for a long while. What’s new is the abuse of the filibuster — mandating supermajorities on literally everything. The GOP’s current misuse has no precedent in American history — we’ve simply never seen anything like this, ever. Did Democrats filibuster during the Bush era? Yes. Did they use the procedural tactic in ways similar to what we’re seeing from Republicans now? It’s not even close.

Nevertheless, it seems institutional resistance to majority-rule remains frustratingly strong.

To make it easier to end a filibuster, Harkin has proposed gradually reducing the number of votes needed to cut off debate — from 60 votes on the first attempt, to 57 votes if another vote is held two days later, and eventually to 51 votes if the debate drags on long enough.

“Under this proposal, a determined minority could slow any bill down,” Harkin said in his recent letter to colleagues. “A minority of members, however, could not stymie the majority by grinding the Senate to a halt, as sadly too regularly happens today.”

But few senators show much inclination to tamper with a tool that gives enormous leverage to either party when it finds itself in the minority.

And that’s precisely why I think public outrage is the key to changing attitudes on the Hill. Senators see value in blocking the majority from governing, regardless of power, because everyone can imagine what it’s like to be in the minority. Without a public demand, there will be no incentive to fix the way the dysfunctional chamber operates.

Ezra recently noted:

Over the past two decades, the minority has learned that they profit in the next election when the majority is judged a failure. They also have learned they have the power to make the majority into a failure by using the minority protections of the Senate to obstruct the majority’s agenda. That is to say, the minority has both the incentive and the power to make the majority fail. That’s all well and good for interesting elections, but it means that no one can successfully govern the country.

And if no one can successfully govern the country, policy progress is impossible and American competitiveness will suffer. The abuse of one, single Senate rule can quite literally undermine the nation’s future.