Bust the Filibuster? Senate Leaders Support Making America’s House of Lords More Democratic

Andrew Kaspar

Murmurings of filibuster reform bounced around the blogosphere last week, and not for the first time. But some think the partisan gridlock of the last 18 months may have finally triggered a “This Is It” moment for changing one of the more curious features of American "democracy.” Rabble rousing on July 24 at the Netroots Nation conference in Las Vegas, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told liberal bloggers “we’re going to have to change it." “It,” of course, being the requirement that 60 senators support a bill in order to end debate and move the legislation forward. The Senate has never been a particularly democratic institution. Its membership is notoriously white, male and wealthy, and the fact that two senators from Wyoming representing less than 0.2 percent of the American population have the same legislative sway as Sens. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein representing 12 percent of Americans in California seems downright silly, absent the historical context of our bicameral system. Filibuster reform is a nonpartisan issue. Except when it’s not, which is whenever one party holds a cloture-thwarting minority threatened by the radical notion that a less than 60 percent majority in the Senate might pass legislation. The practice has become ubiquitous in recent years. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) reiterated his support for reform on Wednesday. The Senate's majority whip had already been pushing for a change to the rules in February via an online petition, and his comments last week reflect a sentiment many on the left are feeling. “I think there’s a high level of frustration and a feeling that we missed many opportunities,” he said. That about sums up this issue for progressives; it’s the opportunities missed that should provide the impetus for reform. It's not just some of the big ticket still-to-dos (climate change, immigration reform) that should inspire a concerted push by the left. It’s about those moments when basic fairness and principles of democratic majority rule are savaged by those seeking to “play politics” for electoral gain. It’s about preventing another case of unemployment benefits held hostage by a super-empowered minority of senators whose combined worth would shock and then presumably incense most Americans—a hyper-rich, cloture-blocking cadre of senators united in opposition to the extension of our nation’s social safety net for the neediest does not make for good optics. The unemployment extension shenanigans should turn the undemocratic nature of the current system from Senate quirk to unacceptable inhibitor of progress. Despite the disappointment of some on the left, it has been an impressive 18 months in terms of legislative output. But at every turn, in the desperate struggle to round up 60 votes, the legislation that has passed has been almost invariably watered down, to progressives’ disappointment. The stimulus bill was too small. Healthcare reform contains no public option. A climate/energy bill will look like nothing as comprehensive as what the House passed and likely won’t look like anything at all under the current Congress. Republicans’ intentions were clear from the moment President Obama took office: Legislative accomplishments were to be obstructed at all costs. Still, the bipartisanship-seeking Democratic leadership seemed convinced that a few moderates might be won over on some of the most pressing legislation. The supermajority calculus has been so fraught that two senators’ deaths and one Ben Nelson have given majority leader Reid ulcers and made a mockery of the upper chamber’s ability to accomplish anything. No one really knows what the November midterms will do to the Senate’s composition, but few expect it will be any easier to round up 60 votes when the 112th Congress convenes in January. Republican obstructionism will continue, making filibuster reform the only real chance to get anything done in the second half of Obama’s first term. Given the wholly undemocratic nature of the filibuster, total abolition of the practice is ideal, though other proposals, including lowering the cloture threshold or some other less radical (democratic) reform, would be preferable to debilitating inaction. Predictably, naysayers in the impotent majority are insisting reform is unnecessary, making a grassroots push all the more necessary. The progressive community must commit to pushing filibuster reform if legislative headway is to be realized on the level that many envisioned when Obama won the election. There will be future bills crafted under Republican rule that the left will wish it could filibuster to the grave, but this seems a small price to pay for much-needed progress now.

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Andrew Kaspar, a summer 2010 In These Times intern, is a student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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