Thursday, January 14, 2010

Liberal Sirens Call For Filibuster Ax

 Liberal Democrats are becoming more vocal in their efforts to can supermajority rule in the U.S. Senate which now calls for three-fifths or 60 senators to kill a filibuster. It reminds me of an old farm adage that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Or for you younger city folks, watch out what you wish for.

My assessment is that liberals are becoming frustrated with the senate rules because the threat of filibusters has held much of President Obama's legislation hostage. Needless to say, it is Democratic senators who own a 60-vote majority that is causing the legislative ship to stall in still waters in this session of the Senate. Ergo, it isn't solely one or the other party doing the skulduggery over the sands of time.

The concept of filibusters is to offer protection for the minority party when they deem pending bills are offensive or detrimental to their constituents. Southern Democrats for years used this tool to prevent civil rights legislation until they were out-gunned by public sentiment and President Johnson in 1965 following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

It was a delaying tactic and/or death sentence rarely used more than a half dozen times annually until 1996 when it gained popularity if not notoriety by both Republicans and Democrats. At the end of the 2008 Senate session, nearly 140 cloture motions were filed.

When I was a political science major in college, I wrote a term paper defending the filibuster as a checks-and-balance of potentially bad legislation rushed upon the Senate in times of turmoil and hysteria. That was 1958. I was terribly idealistic.

Times, they have changed. From a pragmatic perspective, filibusters are threatened to preserve an ideology such as Democrats opposing George Bush judicial nominees or Republicans fighting the stimulus package at a time the nation was on the brink of a financial meltdown in a full-blown recession.

What we have seen this year is Senators using cloture as a means to help themselves get reelected by playing king for the day. Sen. Ben Nelson demanded specific wording on federal funding of abortions while simultaneously requiring the nation's taxpayers to pay his state of Nebraska's full cost of Medicaid forever. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana plucked $300 million from the national kitty to pay for some health care projects in her state.

Folks, this is blatant abuse of the Senate rules, a situation necessitated by the Senate leaders needing every Democratic vote in the chambers because the Republicans, for whatever their reason, are in lock step in opposition to the health care bill.

As the Republicans proved during the first six years of the Bush administration, they have their act together better than the Democrats at any place in power. 

When parliamentary rules are flaunted, it is time for change. It lends credence to simple majority rule and ipso facto places greater importance on our election process.

I Googled Wikipedia, certainly not the Bible of Senate filibuster history, but reliable enough to refresh myself on Senate procedures I last studied in detail oh those 50 years ago in college.

As many of you know, the Supreme Court confirmed the two legislative houses to set their own rules in 1892. In 1917 the Senate modified its rules allowing cloture to kill a filibuster with two-thirds of the chamber's quorum and that requirement was relaxed to three-fifths (60 today) in 1975..

Somewhere in the process during this period, the Senate rules got a little sneaky by invoking Rule 12 in which Senators no longer were required and speak until they dropped in a filibuster a la Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

The fact is the Senate can change its rules if carried by 67  votes. There is another so-called Nuclear Option which is based on constitutional standards although probable but politically impossible based on today's polarization in the Senate.

In today's Los Angeles Times, Harold Meyerson, editor at large of the American Prospect and an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington  Post, argues what the Senate needs is a firebrand liberal such as the late San Francisco Rep.Phil Burton.

Burton democracized the House 40 years ago by convincing Democrats to elect their Speaker and committee chairman rather than earning the jobs based only on seniority where they ruled their fiefdoms as tyrants.

"With that, the most conservative House Democrats began to vote more like their more numerous liberal colleagues," Meyerson says. Man, based on the House health care bill, I'm not certain that argument holds much water.

He also writes that California Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer could lead the charge for the Senate rules change. "Today, there are 68 Californians for every resident of Wyoming. Constitutionally, Californians are the most underrepresented Americans in the Senate by a large margin," he writes. Uh, that's by design, sir.

Concludes Meyerson:

The filibuster is an affront to the most basic principles of democracy: that majorities govern; that elections matter. It can be repealed by a two-thirds vote of the body or, more contentiously, by a majority vote upholding a ruling of the chair that strikes it down.

Abolishing the filibuster carries risks, of course, should Democrats lose control of the Senate. But liberals should be committed to the principle of majority rule. 

 That's easier said than done while sitting in the catbird seat.

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