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.
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.
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.