Dethrone ‘Filibuster King’ Mitch McConnell

The fight is on to fix the minority’s silent domination of the Senate.

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell's excessive use of the silent filibuster lets the minority override legislation desired by the majority of Americans. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Mitch McConnell, the minor­i­ty leader of the U.S. Sen­ate, has for six years wield­ed the fil­i­buster as a weapon in his rebel­lion against a found­ing prin­ci­ple of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca: self-gov­er­nance by major­i­ty rule.

The U.S. House of Representatives functions just fine without a filibuster. Supposedly the Senate needs the filibuster because it’s the more deliberative body. But king McConnell has exploited the filibuster to convert the Senate into the do-nothing-at-all body.

McConnell’s revolt shows he believes Amer­i­cans can­not gov­ern them­selves because, basi­cal­ly, he thinks the major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans are wrong­head­ed. As any monarch would, he believes the minor­i­ty is jus­ti­fied in over­rid­ing and rul­ing over the majority.

McConnell is the fil­i­buster king, mas­ter of all that he and his minor­i­ty min­ions can obstruct. With the fil­i­buster, he zeal­ous­ly blud­geoned to death bills passed by a major­i­ty in the House and sup­port­ed by a major­i­ty in the Sen­ate. What was intend­ed to be a pre­ci­sion tool McConnell bran­dished as a machine gun, mur­der­ing all major­i­ty-sup­port­ed leg­is­la­tion in sight. Fil­i­buster is derived from the Dutch word for thiev­ing pirates. It is the minor­i­ty steal­ing vot­ing rights from the majority.

In the old­en days, like dur­ing the time of the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion and ear­li­er, the fil­i­buster was rarely and judi­cious­ly used by both Demo­c­rat and Repub­li­can minori­ties. It was hauled out of the Sen­ate par­lia­men­tary rules bin only when the mea­sures under con­sid­er­a­tion were fair­ly monumental.

The 1957 Civ­il Rights bill was such a deal. South Car­oli­na Sen­a­tor and seg­re­ga­tion­ist Strom Thur­mond set the fil­i­buster record oppos­ing this mea­sure intend­ed to pro­vide equal vot­ing rights for black peo­ple. Thur­mond knew there were suf­fi­cient votes in the Sen­ate to pass it – that would be 51, a sim­ple major­i­ty. But it would take a super­ma­jor­i­ty – 67 votes at that time – for the Sen­ate to stop debate about it, essen­tial­ly to shut him up, and any­one else who would join him, and move to a vote on the bill itself. He was prob­a­bly right in think­ing pro­po­nents of the bill could not muster 67 votes to stop him.

Thur­mond failed, how­ev­er, because he couldn’t go on after 24 hours of talk­ing and no oth­er Sen­a­tor stepped for­ward to con­tin­ue his tirade against civ­il rights. The Sen­ate passed the bill 62 – 15 two hours after Thur­mond vol­un­tar­i­ly stopped talking.

Just short of 20 years lat­er, the Sen­ate made it eas­i­er to end a fil­i­buster by cut­ting to 60 the num­ber of votes need­ed to end debate. But the Sen­ate has also made it much eas­i­er to con­duct a fil­i­buster. It no longer com­pels obstruc­tion­ists to do any work. All they have to do now is call a fil­i­buster. They don’t have to actu­al­ly stand up and talk. At all. Ever. It’s a silent fil­i­buster. It’s a go-home-and-put-your-feet-up-after-stop­ping-the-work-of-the-major­i­ty filibuster.

And those lazy, silent fil­i­busters have increased dra­mat­i­cal­ly under king McConnell. Repub­li­cans have pulled 348 go-home-and-put-your-feet-up fil­i­busters since Democ­rats became the major­i­ty par­ty in the Sen­ate six years ago. In just the two years of 2009 and 2010, Repub­li­cans pulled more of these lazy, silent fil­i­busters than the total num­ber of fil­i­busters that occurred in the two decades of the 1950s and 1960s.

Fil­i­buster pow­er has so gone to the head of king McConnell that last week, he fil­i­bus­tered a mea­sure that he had pro­posed just hours before.

King McConnell’s suc­cess­ful obstruc­tion has meant that Amer­i­cans who elect­ed Democ­rats as the major­i­ty par­ty in both the House and Sen­ate in 2008 did not get leg­is­la­tion that the major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans sup­port­ed then and con­tin­ue to sup­port now. Dylan Matthews of The Wash­ing­ton Post list­ed 17 mea­sures that like­ly would have become law except for the fil­i­buster. Among them were a bill that would have required cor­po­ra­tions to dis­close their polit­i­cal spend­ing, a mea­sure to end the Bush tax cut for the rich and repeal of spe­cial tax deals and sub­si­dies for oil companies.

The U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives func­tions just fine with­out a fil­i­buster. Sup­pos­ed­ly the Sen­ate needs the fil­i­buster because it’s the more delib­er­a­tive body. But king McConnell has exploit­ed the fil­i­buster to con­vert the Sen­ate into the do-noth­ing-at-all body.

Van­i­ty Fair edi­tor Bruce Handy offered solu­tions to the fil­i­buster prob­lem in a col­umn in the New York Times. He rec­om­mend­ed, for exam­ple, that if a Sen­a­tor wants to fil­i­buster, he must read aloud mate­r­i­al pro­vid­ed by sup­port­ers of the mea­sure. So, for exam­ple, Strom Thur­mond would have been required to recount inci­dents of black peo­ple pre­vent­ed from vot­ing in places like Thurmond’s home state.

Among the more hilar­i­ous of Handy’s sug­ges­tions is one he calls strip fil­i­busters.” The par­ty request­ing a fil­i­buster would be oblig­ed to remove an arti­cle of cloth­ing each time it invokes a new fil­i­buster. With the rise to more than 50 fil­i­busters a year dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, this rule would quick­ly raise a cau­tion­ary ques­tion in Sen­a­tors’ minds. Tongue-in-cheek, Hardy said they’d have to ask themselves:

Do I object to this trade bill or naval yard clos­ing so stren­u­ous­ly that I’m will­ing to let Al Franken see me naked?

The genius of a strip fil­i­buster” rule is that it impos­es a penal­ty on a minor­i­ty attempt­ing to seize the majority’s man­date. A more real­is­tic sanc­tion would be insist­ing that any­one who wants to fil­i­buster actu­al­ly do the talk­ing. End the silent fil­i­buster. If the minor­i­ty wants to scut­tle leg­is­la­tion sup­port­ed by the major­i­ty, let the minor­i­ty stand before the Amer­i­can pub­lic and explain why.

If, like Strom Thur­mond, they can’t keep the talk­ing marathon going, then the fil­i­buster ends and a sim­ple major­i­ty vote on the mea­sure occurs.

Sen­a­tors can change the fil­i­buster rules with a sim­ple major­i­ty vote on the first day of the new leg­isla­tive ses­sion. The major­i­ty must seize back con­trol from the minor­i­ty – as the found­ing fathers intend­ed. Dethrone king McConnell; make the minor­i­ty talk if they want to obstruct.

Full dis­clo­sure: The Unit­ed Steel­work­ers union is a spon­sor of In These Times.

Leo Ger­ard is inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union min­er; Ger­ard start­ed work­ing at a nick­el smelter in Sud­bury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appoint­ed the sev­enth inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent Feb. 28, 2001. For more infor­ma­tion about Ger­ard, vis­it usw​.org.
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