Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Democrats should - but won't - get rid of filibuster

By DeWayne Wickham

The thing that really bothers me about Republicans use of the filibuster to derail bills and stall the Senate s legislative process is not the tyrannical behavior of the GOP minority; it is the complicity of the Democratic majority.

While the Senate s 59-member Democratic caucus is one vote short of the 60 votes needed to cut off a filibuster, it has eight more votes than is required to stop the body's 41 Republicans from using the tactic to effectively block the will of the majority.

For much of its history, the Senate permitted unlimited debate on an issue. But in 1917, it enacted a rule that allowed a two-thirds majority of the body's members to cut off debate. That was reduced to a three-fifths vote in 1975. Since then, the Senate has been required to get the backing of 60 of the body s 100 senators to end a filibuster a supermajority that flouts the basic idea of a majority-rule democracy.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has effectively dismissed some of his fellow Democrats efforts to change Senate rules so that, eventually, 51 votes would be enough to eliminate the filibuster.

Five years ago when Republicans controlled the Senate, they threatened to do just that when Democrats used the filibuster to block 10 of President Bush s?judicial appointments. They called it a nuclear option and for good reason. The thing Senate Democrats and Republicans fear more than being in the minority is being out of power. The filibuster allows the body s minority party to stop the majority from acting if it can rally to its side 41 of the Senate's votes.

Until recently, the filibuster was used sparingly. But as party lines have come to mark this nation s ideological divide, the filibuster has become the roadside bomb of the Senate s minority party.

But as frustrated as each party has been by the other's heavy-handed use of the filibuster, neither has been willing to detonate the nuclear option out of fear that such action would harm them, too.

As he spoke in support of ending the filibuster last week on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean seemed to wish it wouldn t come to that. "Even though having a filibuster would help us in the long run if we get back into the minority, which statistically someday we re likely to do...I think for the good of the country, we probably have to go forward (and) eliminate the filibuster."

The filibuster is a Faustian bargain that undermines the will of voters. The promise of change that swept Barack Obama into the presidency and padded Democratic majorities in the House and Senate last year has been largely derailed by the Senate s Republican minority, which has kept a broad array of legislation from coming to a vote.

More than outrageous, this legislative tyranny holds hostage our democracy to the whims of a political party that was on the losing end of an election cycle. The voters who gave Democrats control of Congress and the White House in the recent elections expect results, not inaction. They expect Congress to bring bills to a vote, not allow a mean-spirited minority to filibuster them to death.

If Democrats won't use the majority voters gave them to end this bad practice, then they deserve to suffer their wrath in November s elections.

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