With the “Fiscal Cliff” looming, there has been an increased focus on Congress and their general inability to get even the most simple of tasks accomplished. Partisan gridlock is at an all time high while Congressional approval ratings are at an all-time low. The growing frustration of many Americans has not as of yet moved elected leaders towards any tangible efforts to fix the problem, but that may change as the 113th Congress convenes.
As the 113th Congress begins, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) is facing pressure from within his own party to address filibuster reform. Ideas for reform range from returning the filibuster to its “roots” where Senators had to physically take the floor and talk in order to block legislation through only allowing a filibuster to occur on the final vote of proposed legislation. Currently, there are six (yes, six) opportunities for Senators to block a bill simply by voicing their objection. Shockingly, the effect of making it so easy for a handful of Senators to block legislation from moving through the chamber is that a record-low percentage of proposed bills are actually being passed. Somewhere around 3% of the bills introduced in the Senate actually make it out of the chamber, and at no other time since World War II has a “do nothing” Congress done less. Currently legislation can be shot down without it being brought to the floor for debate. Senators are not required to justify their opposition, bills are stalled, nothing gets done.
The most popular reform would return filibustering to its early days when Senators had to actually take the floor and talk in order to hold up the legislative process. The current “lazy filibuster” doesn’t require dissenting legislators to even remain on the Senate floor. The example that keeps coming up when this story is discussed in the media is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Can you imagine John McCain having to actually voice his opposition to block Susan Rice? Even better, can you imagine Senator Pat Toomey having to justify filibustering the Veterans Job Corp Bill – A bill that Toomey actually helped write, and then voted against? Probably not, and increasing congressional transparency would hopefully lead to more open discussion of ideas, more debate, more compromise and ultimately more laws actually being passed. When you think of controversial laws that were killed in cloture like the DREAM Act, Veterans Jobs Corp Bill, Fair Pay Act, etc – It’s fair to surmise that if constituents saw their elected leaders on the Senate floor arguing against these popular pieces of legislation that perhaps they would think twice about the political ramifications. In Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s time in charge, there have been 385 cloture motions in the Senate, which require 60 votes and are the only way to end a filibuster. That is more cloture motions than the total number filed between 1917 and 1988. What was once used in special circumstances is now routine, subjecting nearly all Senate business to a 60-vote supermajority. The result has been to stymie vital legislation as well as dozens of executive and judicial nominations. There are now 32 “judicial emergencies” due to vacancies on the federal courts, according to the Office of U.S. Courts.
Senate Republicans contend that any filibuster reform would stifle the minority opinion and prevent then from having a voice in legislating. Apparently these Senators need a quick 3rd grade Civics lesson because they do not seem to understand the American system of Checks and Balances. Even if the Senate actually started passing bills, they would still have to make it through the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. After that, they would have to be signed by a Democratic President. Of course, these laws would have to be reviewed and upheld by a Republican-leaning Supreme Court, as well. The point is: Conservatives aren’t going to wake up in some Marxist/Socialist/Communist country where rich folks pay 75% in taxes, nobody is allowed to have guns, and nobody has to work because the government just gives handouts. It’s really not going to be that bad if the people we elect to pass laws actually… you know, try to pass laws. You’d think that the GOP would have paid closer attention after the drubbing they took in the 2012 election, but it appears like business (or lack thereof) as usual. Meanwhile, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie currently enjoys a 72% approval rating born largely from his bipartisan approach to governance and his response to Hurricane Sandy. In a blue state, over 60% of Democrats approve of the Governor, so maybe compromise is NOT a dirty word, after all.
Republicans threaten to basically shut the Senate down over filibuster reform but my question is – How would that be any different? Nothing gets done NOW, so addressing the problem certainly is a battle that Senate Democrats should welcome.
–Sean Kemmerer is a freelance writer, administrator of Politics Without The Crazy Pills, and is not afraid to cry at the end of “Field of Dreams” .