Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bring Back the Filibuster

You remember "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," right? Actually, I couldn't tell you what it was about, but I do have a vivid memory of Jimmy Stewart, unshaven and half-dead from fatigue, talking and talking to prevent some bill from being enacted.

Those were the days.

I don't want to romanticize the filibuster, whose most notable use in the last half-century was by Southern Democrats to prevent passage of civil rights legislation. But just as George Washington Plunkitt talked about "honest graft," so we can say that there used to be such a thing as an honest filibuster. In an honest filibuster, people would actually stay on the Senate floor, making speeches. The Senate's business would grind to a halt.

Today, it appears, we have the virtual filibuster. Rather than go to all the bother of stopping Senate business, senators count whether one side has enough votes to invoke cloture. If it doesn't, the measure is dead. What the Constitution said required 51 votes (or whatever number constituted a majority) now requires 60. And this in a body whose claims to representativeness are shaky to begin with.

But why is the virtual filibuster worse than the honest filibuster? At least the Senate avoids paralysis.

Here's why: Under the old system, there was some cost to filibustering. The entire country would see that you felt strongly enough about something to bring other business to a halt. And if the voters (at least in your state) didn't feel as strongly as you did, you would pay a price at the polls for being obstructionist. Now you can be as obstructionist as you want, and do it behind the scenes.

It is unfortunate that Senate Democrats have acquiesced to the virtual filibuster. Yes, when it comes to the health  care bill, the Democrats probably do need 60 votes, because one can easily imagine Republicans being willing to undertake an honest filibuster against it. The same is not true for the economic stimulus package. For Republicans to have held that up, when Obama had only recently taken office and the economy was teetering on the brink, strikes me as politically impossible.

Allowing the virtual filibuster meant that Democrats had to compromise with Maine Senator Susan Collins, who imposed one of the worst imaginable changes from an economic standpoint: reducing the total size of the package by cutting aid to the states. This almost instantly led to layoffs in state and local governments. Not a good time to be a young teacher. Not a good time to have lots more people out of work.

The result of the rise of the virtual filibuster is a weakening of democratic accountability. I can see the argument that a majority in the Senate should not mean that you automatically get your way on every issue and can simply ignore the minority. But shouldn't it mean something? Don't voters need to know whom to blame?

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