Monday, December 21, 2009

Let's end the filibuster -- or at least end its significance

An interesting debate is raging on the internet involving the frustrations associated with the U.S. Senate rule on filibusters. As it stands now, a filibuster can only be ended by a vote of 60 Senators in favor of cloture. Though in the past it had been significantly harder to break a filibuster (at one time requiring 67 votes), the practice of stalling and effectively tabling measures through the filibuster has risen significantly, used in recent years by obstructionist Republicans an unprecedented number of times.

There are some who are calling for an all-out abolition of the practice, saying that a majority voice in the Senate should be sufficient enough to pass legislation. There are others who believe that it should remain intact but with substantial reform. Still others believe that it should remain as is, citing that liberals used the filibuster when conservatives were in power just three years ago (though significantly less frequent).

The filibuster, it's interesting to note, isn't mentioned in the Constitution at all; the Senate decided, in its own rules, to institute and enforce it (except in rare occasions like reconciliation). Removing the filibuster, then, would make the entire process of passing legislation more democratic in that, if a majority of Senators wanted to pass a bill, acting in the capacity of representatives to the people who elected them, then they would be able to do so.

What worries some, however, is that a bare-bones majority could enforce its will with hardly any checks and balances (aside from requiring the House to pass legislation similar to it). For example, earlier this decade, reactionary judges nominated by George W. Bush would have been confirmed were it not for a Democratic-led filibuster.

When it's inconvenient, whatever party is in power often talks of doing-away with the filibuster, while the minority party considers such talk deplorable. The truth is that the Senate filibuster is anti-democratic, but can serve a proper purpose if used right -- that is, if used for actually extending debate when needed.

Every piece of legislation deserves to be debated if the minority believes there's something worth arguing over. But using the rule solely to defeat a bill is an abuse of power, a "rule by the minority" that is unacceptable. It's because of that rule that Sens. Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson were able to hold the Senate health care bill hostage until it fit their likings -- without a public option.

Polls show that Americans still want a public option in the health care bill. But because of the filibuster, the Senate could only pass a bill with subsides to those who can't afford care...subsides that will ultimately go to private insurance companies, who put us in this mess to begin with.

It's clear, then, that the filibuster needs to be at the very least reformed. This can be done in two ways. First, the number of Senators needed to end debate should be lowered -- perhaps from 60 to 55 votes. It's overkill to require 60 votes in order to pass every piece of legislation that comes before the upper house of Congress. Lowering that number would ensure that debate could still continue if needed while still being a reasonable number to end that debate and move on.

Second, an expiration date should apply to the filibuster, similar to one that Mr. Filibuster himself, Joe Lieberman, proposed in the early 90s, that would remove the number of votes required to close debate after a certain number of days.

Either way, one or both of these reforms would help lower the significant role that the filibuster plays in American politics. If we continue to keep the filibuster in place as it is today, we will see a minority in control of what bills are passed in the Senate, an ideal that most Americans would rightly reject as undemocratic.

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