Saturday, December 1, 2012

Some Reason for Hope on Filibuster Reform

     Al Franken has a very good idea for filibuster reform. Greg Sargent, Ezra Klein and Jonathan Bernstein have pointed out that any filibuster reform we get will be insufficient if the Senate remains a 60 vote supermajority body.

     The most likely reforms have been given as no longer being able to filibuster a bill even coming up for the discussion and requiring those who filibuster to actually have to speak on the floor continuously to keep ti going. There's some debate about how much these measures would achieve but neither stop the need for a supermajority to get even the most routine Senate business done.

     Another idea that sounds good though would be to relax the rules on reconciliation-making it easier to pass budget related bills by simple reconciliation-which requires only 51 votes. Franken's idea though is surprisingly simple yet it would be quite effective it seems to me.

     Since Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley was elected in 2008 he has been tirelessly working on filibuster reform. In 2010 his proposal did get 46 Senators to vote for it but Senate Majority Leader did not support it. Now Reid has seen the light.

     As Sen. Merkley tells us, the chances of filibuster reform are:

     "Much improved. Two years ago, when Tom Udall and I put forward a package of reforms, we had 46 senators vote for it — without the support of our majority leader. The majority leader recently said, “You know what, two years ago I said we can resolve these issues through a gentlemen’s agreement. Now I recognize it cannot be done that way and I support changing the rules.” I mean, he’s really jumped into the fray. He’s gone to the floor three or four times to talk about the fact we’re going to have to change the rules."

      "Look, are we just going to accept a broken Senate that can’t deliberate, can’t debate, can’t decide? Is that acceptable, given our responsibility to the American people? I think after the last two years, after the worst legislative session in U.S. history, they’ll say, “No, the abuse is so extensive it must be addressed.”

      One of the ideas for reform is Franken's idea which is lowering the number of votes needed to continue to debate from 60 to 41. As Senator Merkley says:

      "Al Franken (D-Minn.) has a terrific idea: He has proposed that, instead of requiring 60 votes to end debate, require 41 to extend debate. If you have senators who are missing now, they count as automatic no votes — automatic votes in favor of continuing debate. But if you have to get 41 votes to continue debate, those missing votes count on the side of “OK, let’s wrap things up.”

       According to the Senator, this proposal is a real part of the debate. There is a good deal of consternation about cracking down of the filibuster and you can't blame senators for being wary. After all, the Democrats won't control the Senate forever. Still can there by any doubt that the system is broken over there right now? As Reid points out, there was 1 filibuster in the entire time LBJ was in office, During the time Reid has been Senate Majority Leader, there have been 386.

       Something has to change,, I think it can be agreed. There is a great deal that can be done to reform the filibuster reform process short of total abolition. Merkley makes the point that there are now so many ways to filibuster. You can filibuster it even getting to the floor. Then you can filibuster a motion to continue debate. You can filibuster a bill that passes the House going to a conference committee:

        "So, here comes a bill. First comes a filibuster on the motion to proceed. Finally you break that and get the bill to the floor. Then there’s an amendment, and a filibuster on that. Then there’s a filibuster on the bill itself. Then there’s an effort to get it into committee and a filibuster on that (actually, up to three). Then it’s out of committee to the final vote on the conference committee report, and there’s another filibuster."

         "So there are all these hurdles. Now, getting rid of a couple of the hurdles doesn’t eliminate all of them. In that sense, the point you’re making is absolutely right. But on the other hand, it gets rid of one on the front end, the motion to proceed, and three in the middle, on getting to conference committee. So you’re left with the amendment, a bill, and a conference report as the three points that can be filibustered. It’s a modest improvement — not as dramatic as getting rid of the filibuster."

          Merkley does not advocate getting rid of it entirely. As is clear, however, there is much we can do to reform the filibuster short of outright repeal.

          P.S. As an interesting aside, it's not literally true that you can only change the Senate rules with 51 votes on the first day-it's more of a tradition that the law of the land:

          "Constitutionally, you can make rule changes anytime. Article 1-5 of the Constitution says we can organize ourselves; it doesn't say we have to set our rules on day one.
But by tradition, it is a debate that happens at the start of a two-year period. That is the moment when you have the political momentum to carry this debate."





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