Dems can’t overcome filibuster threats to get decent legislation — so what should they do?
I’ve talked to many, many people over the past few days who are struggling to figure out how to respond to the passage of the energy bill. There’s a lot of genuine anguish out there.
One camp laments this as yet another defeat in a long string. Reid capitulated to Republicans and accepted a wan, emaciated bill. In the name of getting an incremental step forward, he’s allowing Republicans to campaign on having voted for fuel efficiency and Bush to claim credit. He let Big Oil defeat renewable energy. On issue after issue, Reid has let the threat of a filibuster hollow out legislation that has majority support, both in the populace and in Congress. This camp is well-represented by Ken Ward. These folks want a real knock-down, drag-out fight.
On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that the bill is a step forward, and probably the most that could have gotten done given the circumstances. Kevin Drum expressed this take yesterday:
Yes, there’s still too much corn ethanol in this bill, and losing the 15% mandate for renewable electricity generation was a blow. But seriously, compare this bill to the energy industry porkfest that a Republican congress passed in 2005. It’s like night and day. That one was little more than a massive handout to every energy lobbyist who ever dined at Charlie Palmer Steak. Today’s bill, by contrast, actually accomplishes something. The CAFE increase to 35 mpg, all by itself, is historic, and 60% of the fuel mandate is for advanced biofuels and cellulosic ethanol, rather than the corn variety. This is real legislation that addresses a real problem, not a handout for campaign donors masquerading as "reform."
With this bill signed, the fight for an even better bill starts tomorrow. But without a Democratic congress we’d still be fighting to get even this much — and we wouldn’t be any closer than we were five years ago. So, warts and all, good job, Harry and Nancy.
So which is it? Is something better than nothing?
A new report out yesterday shows that in just one session, Republicans have set a historic record for the number of filibusters:
"In just one session, a minority in Congress has prevented a mind-blowing 62 pieces of legislation from going to the floor for an up or down vote," said Campaign for America’s Future co-director Roger Hickey. "Our report shows how over and over again, the uncompromising minority has thwarted the will of majorities in Congress and of the American people, holding the Senate floor hostage to a radical right-wing agenda."
When Dems were in the minority and so much as breathed of a filibuster, Republicans flew into high dudgeon and threatened the "nuclear option," an unprecedented maneuver that would have scrapped the filibuster altogether.
But now they use the filibuster willy-nilly, and what price do they pay? Headlines like this: "Bush, GOP Prevail on Host of Hill Issues." In the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne protests plaintively that Pelosi and Reid need a "Plan B." He notices, quite accurately, that "The Democrats’ core problem is that they have been unable to place blame for gridlock where it largely belongs, on the Republican minority and the president."
In an ideal world, Democrats would pass a lot of legislation that Bush would either have to sign or veto. The president would have to take responsibility for his choices. The House has passed many bills, but the Republican minority has enormous power in the Senate to keep the legislation from getting to the president’s desk. This creates the impression that action is being stalled through some vague and nefarious congressional "process."
Yes, voters blame "the process." They blame "Congress." And Democrats blame each other. And lefty groups blame Democrats. And Republicans get away without a scratch.
How can Democrats change that? They certainly can’t rely on help from the media. You’d be hard-pressed to even find the world filibuster in most legislative coverage. It’s always, "the bill failed 59-41." A weird sort of failure, but of course the public is not going to pay close enough attention to see what’s really going on.
So what’s Dionne’s solution?
The party’s congressional leaders need to do whatever they have to do to put this year behind them. Then they need to stop whining. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should put aside any ill feelings and use the Christmas break to come up with a joint program for 2008.
They could start with the best ideas from their presidential candidates in areas such as health care, education, cures for the ailing economy and poverty reduction. Agree to bring the same bills to a vote in both houses. Try one more time to change the direction of Iraq policy. If Bush and the Republicans block their efforts, bring all these issues into the campaign. Let the voters break the gridlock.
So … more of the same? And then hope it’s an electoral issue? That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
The alternative is to actually force a real, honest-to-god filibuster, but even that isn’t as simple as it looks. Karen Tumulty did a quick article about it, asking two experts on Congressional procedure, and they couldn’t even agree that it was possible, much less advisable. My sense is that a lot of the people casually calling for forcing a filibuster have no real sense of what it would mean. Frankly, my confidence that Dems would win the ensuing PR battle is fairly low — when was the last time they won one of those?
Where does that leave us? Frustrated as hell. Even big wins for Dems in 2008 still probably won’t put them near the 57, 58 vote threshold they need in the Senate to reliably reach cloture. There’s every possibility that next year could see larger majorities of Dems in both houses and a Dem president, and still a Senate minority big enough to generate total deadlock. What’s going to stop them? Scruples? Right.
The filibuster sucks.
Get Grist in your inbox