Friday, June 29, 2007

Should Democrats eliminate the fillibuster?

So asks The Nation:

It was not so long ago that Republicans threatened to "nuke" the Senate if Democrats employed the filibuster to block President Bush's judicial nominees, particularly those to the Supreme Court (which in light of recent decisions, they clearly should have).

Fast forward two years later, with Democrats narrowly in control, and the Senate is in a state of permanent filibuster. It takes 60 votes to get "cloture" and pass just about anything.

As a result, pieces of legislation that won a majority but failed to garner 60 votes, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, a minimum wage increase without tax breaks for business, major investments in renewable energy and mandates for clean-energy sources, the importation of cheap prescription drugs from Canada, allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices under Medicare, countless amendments to the immigration bill and on and on.

We are told this is just the way the Senate works. Fine. But there is a clear double standard in terms of media coverage. No one reported that Republicans "filibustered" the Employee Free Choice Act. And no Democrat is vowing to nuke the Senate as a consequence.

During the debate over the "nuclear option" Matthew Yglesias and a handful of other liberal dissidents urged Republicans to proceed, arguing that in the long run the filibuster was a major impediment to progressive change. Perhaps they were right.
I'm beginning to think the same. I've documented in other recent posts the record-rate at which Senate Republicans have blocked votes on nearly all legislation this term, something Democrats obviously didn't do when Republicans were in the majority (even when it was as narrow as the Democrats' majority is now). This is intolerable. The Senate is supposed to be the body that slows down legislation, and that's an important Constitutional role, but we're living under rules in which a single Senator can block legislation that has bipartisan support. Writer Ari Berman is also correct that the mainstream media has painted Republicans with the same "obstructionist" label they did Democrats, despite the fact that Republicans are using the blocking tactic much more often.

Now, I too disagreed with Matthew Yglesias when he argued that Democrats should not only allow the "nuclear option," but abolish the fillibuster completely because it would allow a Republican majority to pass legislation much more easily. But, what did the "Gang of 14" non-compromise achieve? All those right-wing judges were confirmed anyway, and the right of Republicans to fillibuster was preserved. And given the way that the Senate overrepresents conservative areas of the country, the situation is even worse for Democrats. The Nation is right to use the term "permanent fillibuster."

Despite this, I'm still not ready to say Senate Democrats should definitely elimate the fillibuster. We still must give Senate leaders sometime to work things out. But if the Republicans' massive obstruction continues, I'm not sure Democrats will have any other choice.

1 comment:

Nat-Wu said...

I think it would be a terrible mistake to get rid of the filibuster. I think the problem does not lie in the abuse of the filibuster, but rather the polarization of the Congress caused by our political process. I believe that much more fundamental changes must be made, and if made, will render the filibuster an effective defense of the minority opinion once again.