Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The US Senate tradition of stonewalling democracy

Under our federal system of government established in the 18th century, the legislature is divided into two bodies – one that represents people and one that represents states. The latter is the United States Senate. There is very little that is democratic about the Senate. The apportionment of representation currently leaves approximately two-thirds of the Senators representing approximately one-third of the American population. Senators were not popularly elected until the passage of the 17th Amendment less than one-hundred years ago. And, of course, there are arcane rules such as the filibuster which is used to thwart majority rule.

Senate rules permit a senator, or a series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless a 3/5ths of the Senate (60 out of 100 Senators – previously 2/3rds or 67 out of 100 before 1975), brings debate to a close by invoking cloture. Previously, the filibustering senator(s) could delay voting only by making an endless speech. Currently, they only need to indicate that they are filibustering, thereby preventing the Senate from moving on to other business until the motion is withdrawn or enough votes are gathered to allow the Senate to proceed with the nation’s business.

When the House of Representatives passed a proposal for national health-care reform, Senator Joseph Lieberman threatened to filibuster the bill when presented to the Senate. Benjamin Sarlin and Samuel Jacobs examine the tradition of obstructionism in the Senate:
When Sen. Joe Lieberman issued fresh threats to filibuster any health-care reform proposal including a public option, he did more than just blunt the momentum generated by the House of Representatives’ passage of a bill this weekend. Lieberman also took his place in a venerable line of legislators bent on using parliamentary procedure to hold up the works. The deans of delay have already been hard at work this Congress, blocking Obama’s nominations for the federal bench and slowing the appointment of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. It's all becoming too much for Majority Leader Harry Reid, who let loose on the GOP for obstructionist tactics last week after Republicans held up a bill extending unemployment benefits for weeks, even though it passed unanimously after they relented.

These tactics have a rich history. Beginning in the 19th century—historians usually trace the first major threat of a legislative slowdown to 1841—the filibuster became the obstructionist’s weapon of last resort—a way for a passionate minority, sometimes a minority of one, to put the breaks on legislation. The marathon-length address embraced by crusaders and cranks alike—and knew no partisan bounds.

The filibuster was once a muscular event, if one that required a flair for the theatrical (Sen. Alfonse D’Amato of New York singing “South of the Border”) or absurd (Louisiana Sen. Huey Long giving recipes for fried oysters). Filibustering was as physical a contest as politicking could be—Thurmond spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes; Sen. Wayne Morse held up an oil bill for 22 hours and 26 minutes in 1953; most recently, D’Amato filibustered for more than 15 hours against a bill that would close typewriter factory in his district. Senators had to put their backs, knees, and throats on the line in support of their principles.

“The onus has been turned on the leader to get the 60 votes,” said Sarah Binder, co-author of Politics or Principle: Filibustering in the United States Senate. “Why? Why don’t they put those senators' feet to the fire and make them stand all night? In large part there are such pressing agendas that no one really wants to sacrifice the time.”

Not everyone sees this change as an improvement. Harry McPherson, who has seen plenty of filibusters since serving as counsel to Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1950s, said it may be time to bring the sleepover back to the Senate.

“Why is it that certain people throw up their hands if they don’t have 60 votes? Why don’t they just go ahead and force the opponents to filibuster? Filibustering is not a pleasant thing to do,” McPherson said. “In 1960, the place was full of cots. Senators were sleeping in all kinds of places. Many of these people, more then than now, were elderly people. It was quite unpleasant.”

The filibuster isn’t the only weapon at a delay-minded senator’s disposal. The anonymous hold—by which one senator can secretly hold up a bill or appointment and force the majority leader to go through a time-consuming hoops to overcome the objections—has become increasingly popular in recent years. The use of such tactics helps explain why President Obama has had considerable difficulty getting his judicial nominees and executive-branch appointments confirmed.

So who are the most epic obstructionist senators today? While there is no reliable means of tallying filibusters and holds, some lawmakers have truly distinguished themselves in recent years. Remember: the further from the center of power a member is, the more attractive these tactics designed to protect the minority appear to be…..
Read the entire article here. Sarlin and Jacobs point to some the key obstructionists – Joe Lieberman, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, Mitch McConnell, Sam Brownback, and Robert Byrd – in the current Senate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stephen, You are absolutely correct -- there needs to be reapportionment in the Senate. the disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor has only grown over time with urbanization and population concentration in stares such as California. In addition, there are multiple 60 vote budget points of order that provide greater weight to the votes of the minority on matters of fiscal policy -- the topic of my thesis in 2005 MS