For those who might not be familiar with the term, “fuhgeddaboudit” is one of those three-into-one Noo Yawk words that puts the final stamp on the subject with which it is concerned. Yes, folks, good folks like Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa can present very logical arguments for getting rid of the most anti-democratic rule crippling the functioning of any legislature in any of the “Western Democracies” (see his “Fixing the Filibuster” of June 30, 2010). However, as long as the Democratic Losership Council (love that name, applied by a commentator on an earlier commentary of mine) controls the Democratic Party, it ain’t going to happen.
Senator Harkin makes all of the right arguments:
Despite record-high persistent unemployment, Republicans have repeatedly used the filibuster to kill attempts to extend benefits to the long-term jobless. Meanwhile, real and threatened filibusters have prevented Democrats from addressing urgent national priorities, ranging from climate change to immigration reform to energy transformation. . . . The filibuster rule has become an absurd and destructive anachronism. As few as forty-one senators, potentially representing less than 15 percent of the population, have the power to block any bill, amendment or nominee. In other words, America has become a representative democracy without majority rule. . . . In the 1950s, there was an average of one per two-year Congressional session. By contrast, during the last Congress (2007–08), 139 bills were filibustered. Already in the current Congress, since January 2009, there have been more than 100 filibusters. . . . That is why I have introduced a bill to change the Standing Rules of the Senate to reform the cloture procedure. Currently, it takes sixty votes to “invoke cloture”—in other words, to end debate on a legislative measure and bring it to a vote. My bill would permit a decreasing number of senators to invoke cloture on a given measure . . . . But, over a period of days or weeks, the number of votes required would fall to a simple majority of fifty-one senators.
By golly, makes sense, no? The Senate would actually become democratic. But, forgetting about the GOP and their political aims for using the filibuster ad nauseum, that is exactly what the DLC is afraid of. Because if it were democratic, with the current very substantial Democratic majority, it might actually have to become democratic, despite Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu and Blanche Lincoln. Ohmygosh, chills running up and down Rahm’s spine along with the spines of every other entrenched DLCer from Bill Clinton on up (or down, depending upon your point of view). Those chills likely primarily relate to policy (I will make the case for that below). But they also relate to unfamiliarity. Because in modern times, when the Democrats have been in the minority, they just never have happened to have used the tactic.
Now the present Senate leadership, “lead” if you can call it that, by the card-carrying DLCer Harry Reid, tells us that the arcane rules of the Senate make doing away with the filibuster rule in mid-stream impossible. Well, the rules of the Senate are indeed described as arcane, so arcane in fact that, with the death of Sen. Robert Byrd, who, it was said, knew them like no one else ever has, we might never know all of them again. But rules are made to be used, to be modified, even to be changed. It just happens that in the last Congress controlled by the GOP, when there was talk that the Democrats might actually filibuster several particularly unattractive Bush judicial nominees, the GOP threatened to invoke the “nuclear option” to revoke the filibuster rule. Of course, the Democrats, with dear old Joe Lieberman (yes, he was still a Democrat back then) leading the way, absolutely caved and made a couple of really meaningless “compromises.” The filibuster rule was kept in place. Too bad, in fact, that they didn’t force the GOP to do away with it. But the GOP had absolutely no qualms about getting ready to ditch it mid-term, “arcane” Senate rules or not.
So why does the Senate Democratic leadership not do the same thing? Because they don’t want to change it, that’s why. Having the Senate be subject to democratic rule would mean that Harry Reid, not Mitch McConnell, would be the true Majority Leader. (Yes, whether advertently or inadvertently, Frank Rich did actually refer to Sen. McConnell as the “majority leader” in a recent column.) And functionally he is. Because no bill will get passed in the Senate, no Obama appointment will be approved, without McConnell’s OK. And given how Harry Reid handles things in the Senate, McConnell’s boy and girls don’t actually have to engage in filibustering. That is, they don’t have to engage in endless debate on the Senate floor, doing things like reading from the Washington, DC telephone book, getting themselves very tired, and given C-Span, making themselves look absolutely ridiculous before the nation. No they just have to announce “we have 40 votes against.” That’s it and that’s that.
But supposing there were no filibuster rule. Well, let’s start in the House. There is a substantial minority of true Democrats in the House, beginning with the Black and Progressive Caucuses. The House leadership is only somewhat DLC, and many of the most powerful committee chairs, like Barney Frank, are definitely of the former variety. Knowing that progressive legislation could actually get to the Senate floor for a vote and that some of it actually might pass, the House would be under much more outside political pressure to pass such legislation. Why, the leadership might actually have to arm-twist some of the Republidems (otherwise known as “Blue Dogs”) just the way that Gingrich and DeLay used to arm-twist the few “liberal” Republicans remaining in the House in their era.
But just think what bills might come up in that case. A whole bunch not at all on the agenda of Obama and the DLC:
1. Single-payer health insurance might at least have made it to the legislative hopper, in contrast with the private insurance-subsidy legislation we have now.
2. There might have been true banking reform, like the full restoration of Glass-Steagal that was so ingloriously done away with by Bill Clinton and Larry Summers.
3. There might be some really tight oversight of stock trading, including bringing that mysterious world of the hedge funds, that did so much to bring on the 2007-2008 crash, under regulatory scrutiny.
4. There might be real visitation of the $35 billion in subsidies that the oil industry currently receives from the federal government.
5. The Congress might really visit Afghanistan policy and the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been and will be wasted on it.
6. Union election “Card-check” legislation might come to the floor, giving Congress a chance to reverse the slow, gradual demise of the trade unions that has been underway ever since the passage of the Federal Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 and the appearance of the state “right-to-work” (otherwise known as the “kill-the-unions”) laws that began appearing in the 1950s.
7. The whole matter of the private, for-profit “electronic voting” system (otherwise known as the “how the GOP can most easily steal elections” system) could be considered.
8. A true stimulus package and another and another could be passed, and taxes could be raised on the rich and the big corporations, not just by repealing the Bush cuts, but by starting to get them back up to where they should be so that, for example, the massive job of bringing the nation’s infrastructure into the 20th century could begin (and that’s not a misprint; bringing it into the 21st century is a long way off).
9. A meaningful start on dealing with global warming, climate change and moving energy policy into the 21st century could be undertaken.
10. Repealing NAFTA and setting up controls on the export of capital (the facilitation of which was the true impetus for NAFTA and the World Trade Organization agreement that Clinton pushed so hard).
11. And so on and so forth.
And so, the problem here, at least in this Congress, is not GOP policy. It is DLC policy. They would want virtually none of the elements of the above list to be reasonably achievable. Given the power of the corporations and their lobbyists, most likely not too much of the above list could make it into law anyway. But at least there could be a full debate. The Republidems would be revealed in all their glory. So would the fact that despite his rhetoric, the President is DLC-to-the-core. Progressives would be mobilized since they have not been since the days of the pre-Viet Nam War Lyndon Johnson. The DLC could not have that. Their very own corporate sponsors could not have that. And so, the honest pleadings of Sen. Harkin to the contrary notwithstanding (he tells us that he has introduced legislation to support his plan since 1995) as long as the DLC controls the Democratic Party, regardless of whether the latter is in the majority or the minority in the Senate — and they would of course never use it in the latter circumstance, so will the filibuster rule stay in place.
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; a Contributor to The Planetary Movement; and a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC.
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