Blocking the Senate should be hard work
I think we all knew that the growing call for filibuster reform was going to meet with some resistance eventually.
Well, here it is:
Senior Democrats say Reid will not have the votes to change the rule at the beginning of next year.
“It won’t happen,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who said she would “probably not” support an effort to lower the number of votes needed to cut off filibusters from 60 to 55 or lower.
Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) echoed Feinstein: “I think we should retain the same policies that we have instead of lowering it.
“I think it has been working,” he said.
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he recognizes his colleagues are frustrated over the failure to pass measures such as the Disclose Act, campaign legislation that fell three votes short of overcoming a Republican filibuster Tuesday.
“I think as torturous as this place can be, the cloture rule and the filibuster is important to protect the rights of the minority,” he said. “My inclination is no.”
Sen. Jon Tester, a freshman Democrat from Montana, disagrees with some of his classmates from more liberal states.
“I think the bigger problem is getting people to work together,” he said. “It’s been 60 for a long, long time. I think we need to look to ourselves more than changing the rules.”
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is up for reelection in 2012, also said he would like the votes needed for cloture to remain the same.
“I’m not one who think it needs to be changed,” he said.
There are plenty of reasons to believe it’s still possible to get these Senators on the same page with reformers, but I won’t go into them all just yet. We’ve got to give them some time and talk things out with them first.
But there is one thing I’d like to address directly right now, and that’s the statement from Jon Tester, who said that he thought the real problem was “getting people to work together.”
Well, who couldn’t agree to that? Right? But here’s where I’m going to guess that Sen. Tester and I differ in our approach. For him, the emphasis is probably on “together,” whereas for me, the emphasis is on “work.” Because the Senate isn’t “working,” but they’re “together” whether they like it or not.
The Senate’s not working, because there are something like 400 bills that have been passed by the House during the 111th Congress that the Senate has failed to consider. The Senate’s not working, because there are dozens and dozens of executive nominations gathering dust. But most of all, the Senate’s not working because it doesn’t take any work to stop it from working. And that’s what the Republicans are interested in doing. Worse, current rules make stopping the Senate from doing its work the easiest thing in the world to do.
That’s just plain wrong, and I’ll bet anything Senator Tester would agree with that. I’m guessing that’s true because Senator Tester seems like the kind of guy who prides himself on his hard work, whether it’s on the farm or in the Senate.
And he strikes me as a fair guy, too. So I know he’ll understand when I say that if you want to allow for extended debate to let the minority be heard, that’s fine.
But it’s not free.
You should have to work — and work hard — to be able to stop an important bill. You should have to work yourself half to death to be able to derail an entire legislative agenda. And quite frankly, you shouldn’t count on ever seeing the light of day again if you’re looking to bottle up the entire agenda of the biggest Senate majority elected in decades. It should be that hard to do.
But it’s not. Most times, you don’t even have to lift a finger. And you know Jon Tester can’t really be OK with that.
The filibuster is no longer a measure of the courage and dedication of a single Senator, fighting against all odds to demand that his voice be heard. Today’s filibuster is the coordinated act of an entire party caucus, and it’s hardly ever aimed at getting additional debate time, but rather at stifling debate and preventing Senators from doing the job we sent them to Washington (and paid them with your tax dollars) to do. And that’s to vote. To make the tough calls and the hard decisions on public policy, and choose a direction for America. They’re not doing it though. And they’re not doing it because the filibuster makes it impossible for them to do it. (But that’s not stopping their paychecks, in case you were wondering!)
Stopping an entire legislative agenda — or even just demanding a little bit of extra time to debate and consider an important decision — ought to take real, honest, hard work. And that should mean being on the floor to participate in that debate you demanded. How can anybody “work together” if one side doesn’t even have to show up?
That’s the current state of the filibuster. The minority need only show up once in a while to vote “no” on whether or not to end debate, but they don’t have to show up more than one at a time to actually participate in that debate. Just talk about nothing, one at a time, and then pass it on to a colleague when you feel like heading out for a drink. And once in a while, call in your buddies to show up to say “no.”
That’s not work.
But the majority does have to do the hard work. They’re the ones who prepare measures for floor consideration. Who shepherd it through committee. Who gather support for it among colleagues and interest groups and constituents. Where’s the “work” from the minority? All they do in this “working together” business is show up and say “no.”
Well, I imagine that even Senator Tester would like to see that change. Only there’s no way to change it without opening up to the possibility of changing Senate rules, because so long as there’s no way to make Senators do their work, he can wish all day long that his Republican colleagues would “work together” with him and it won’t make a damn bit of difference. Maybe he has been wishing, but I certainly haven’t seen it happening. Have you? It must not be working real well. And I’ve got to believe that the reason it’s not working real well is that the rules make it so that you have more power when you refuse to work than you do when you agree to pitch in.
That’s got to change. And if Jon Tester doesn’t think so, I’d love to hear him tell me why.
More stories in this series:
Over the weekend, the PBS show Need to Know ran a fantastic piece on Senate dysfunction, focused in particular on filibuster abuse. It features Sen. Tom Udall, a big supporter of Senate rules reform, and George Packer, who wrote a …
The Senate clearly isn’t working, and the frustration is being felt outside and inside the body. I challenge my colleagues and all of you to support my Constitutional option for changing the rules and making the Senate function again.
The filibuster stands today as the single most important impediment to the significant reforms needed in America’s climate/energy policies, its immigration policies, its labor law policies, and its need for a functioning judiciary. But beyond that, the filibuster has become …
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