Friday, January 22, 2010

Save Democracy! Kill the filibuster!

Matthew Yglesias makes a good point about the filibuster's negative effect on the whole legislative process:

A minority of 40 or fewer Senators can, by engaging in filibustering both a motion to proceed and the bill itself can cause it to take about a week between when the majority rounds up its 60 votes and when the bill actually passes. First you need to file cloture on the motion to proceed. Then it takes about a day for cloture to “ripen.” Then there’s the cloture vote. Then a 30 hour waiting period. Then the vote on the motion to proceed. Then, even if there’s nothing left to debate, you need to do the whole thing over again. File for cloture. Take a day for cloture to ripen. Then the cloture vote. Then 30 hours. Then you vote.

One consequence of this is that if you have 100 small ways to improve the health care system, each of which piss off some small interest group, you can’t do the sensible thing and just bring each small idea to the floor separately and pass it. The sheer amount of time it takes to overcome some random bloc of Senators’ opposition makes it not worthwhile for most members. To get an idea enacted into law over determined opposition, you not only need at least 60 Senators to agree with it, you need them to be enthusiastic enough to let your pet plan eat up all this time.

Consequently, if you want to do something, the smart way to do it is to fold it into some larger endeavor. And that’s why you get things like a 2,000 page health care bill or a monster omnibus or weird things attached to appropriations bills.

This is crazy. It is absolutely nuts. These Senate rules have got to be changed. First, you should only be allowed to filibuster actual legislation, not a bunch of procedural motions, so that they can't force half a dozen votes requiring a supermajority each time for one single bill. You get ONE cloture vote and that is it. End of story.

Furthermore, the filibuster was never supposed to be about killing legislation. It was about extending time to allow for more debate. So Sen. Tom Harken's proposed rule changes make perfect sense. If the minority wants to have more time to debate, then they filibuster and the first effort at cloture needs 60 votes. But then one week later the threshold drops to 57 and then one week later down to 54 and finally, one-week later the bill could be passed on a majority vote of 51. By that time the minority would have had plenty of time to make their case and get their views expressed, but they would not be able to hold things up indefinitely and thus thwart the will of the majority which is intrinsically undemocratic.

The Harken bill would require 67 votes to pass and I don't see that happening because Republicans are more concerned about regaining power by any means necessary than they are with fixing a dysfunctional legislative system that is unable to govern. Republicans are essentially anti-government radicals today, so they don't care if the government can't function.

But at the start of the next legislative session, after the mid-term elections, if the Democrats are still in the majority they will have one last chance to change the rules to something more like what the Founding Fathers intended and do it by a majority vote.

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