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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fix the Filibuster Rules

Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) predicts "fireworks" on Jan. 5, 2011. The day a new Senate convenes, fifty-one Senators can set the rules for the body with a simple majority vote. January 5, 2011 is the day that the Senate should adopt rules that limit the ability of the minority to obstruct and circumvent the will of the majority by using the filibuster and secret holds.

Sign the petition:  Fix the filibuster rules

Rachel Maddow rounds up the number of senators who have told her personally that they support reforming the filibuster rule and points out that there is only one day at the start of the new Congress when this can be done.


Details of how this will be done - by Tom Harkin:

We are coming on the fifth to basically send a motion to the vice president ... that will change the rules and there is a procedure to provide 51 votes to do that.  Essentially, that path to reform requires Vice President Joe Biden -- who supports weakening the filibuster -- to rule on the first day of the next session that the Senate has the authority to write its own rules. Republicans, presumably, would immediately move to object, but Democrats could then move to table the objection, setting up a key up-or-down vote. If 50 Democrats voted to table the objection, the Senate would then move to a vote on a new set of rules, which could be approved by a simple majority.Senator Tom Harkin has proposed a plan to lower the number of votes needed to cut off debate (to end a filibuster) gradually over a number of days. The first day it would take 60 votes. Two days later it would take 57 votes. Two days after that, 55 votes -- then 53 and finally 51.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has also been exploring options for filibuster reform, and suggested that the Senate might exercise the "constitutional option" and change Senate rules with a simple majority of votes on the first day of its next session. Since the Constitution gives the House and Senate the power to set their own rules, Udall's proposal would seem to bypass the higher threshold required to change Senate rules.

Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has held meetings on the idea, and the options for reform include ideas ranging from requiring senators to speak continuously during an actual filibuster to lowering the threshold of votes that can end a filibuster.

Others have proposals to shift the burden of maintaining a filibuster to those who want to prevent a majority vote. You might, for instance, require that at any time, at any hour, any member could ask for a "Cloture Call,", much the same way they can ask for a quorum call today. If 41 Senators did not report to the floor to answer that they wished to sustain the filibuster, then the filibuster would end. Such a rule would require those who want to filibuster to actually filibuster -- and to constantly provide the votes to sustain it. Under the proposals of those who want to shift the burden of maintaining a filibuster to the minority, any quorum call would automatically trigger an end to the filibuster. Reformers have proposed a variety of other changes, such as ending filibusters for nominations, eliminating onerous time requirements intended to make it impractical for the Senate to consider controversial issues or nominations, and ending "secret holds". The 60-vote rule gives the Republicans every incentive to try to kill legislation. If bills required a simple majority, the minority would be forced to negotiate if they wanted to affect the shape of legislation since they would no longer have the power to obstruct them outright.
What has caused a need to change the filibuster?
The answer is the Senate Rules. Democrats currently have a majority of 58 votes in the Senate. But to pass anything meaningful they need a super-majority of 60. That's not because the Constitution requires such a super-majority. It's because of rules adopted by members of the Senate -- that have been abused by the obstructionist Republican minority.

That movement is fueled by growing frustration among Democratic voters at the way Republican leader Mitch McConnell calls so many shots in the Senate, even though Democrats are in the majority. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is forced by the Senate rules to get 60 votes for almost any substantial piece of legislation. Democrats want their members of the Senate to stand up and fight back. Voters want an end to partisan gridlock.

In fact, the current Senate rules not only empower minority Republicans, they also empower Wall Street and other special interests. It's very hard to get a 60- vote super-majority for any major policy in America. The 60-vote super-majority means that special interests can concentrate their efforts -- and contributions -- on recruiting just a few Senators who can then prevent the Senate from taking any action that compromises their interests. It empowers political "hostage takers" who represent the most powerful elements of corporate America rather than the majority of Americans.

Things could have been different:  Just Imagine
Just think how different the last two years would have been if every measure did not require 60 votes:

• Congress would have passed a substantially larger economic stimulus plan in early 2009 that could have materially increased the rate of economic growth and put millions of Americans back to work. Not only would that have benefited everyday Americans, it would have translated into much better Democratic performance in last month's elections -- and all that implies over the next two years.

• The health care reform bill would have included a Public Option that would have helped control health care costs, cut the long-term Federal deficit, and -- because it was one of the most popular elements of the president's health care reform -- would have increased the popularity of the entire measure.

• Comprehensive Immigration Reform would have passed the Congress and been signed into law.

• "Don't Ask Don't Tell" would have been repealed.

• And, of course the tax cuts for the Middle Class and unemployment insurance would have been continued -- and tax breaks for the wealthy would have been discontinued. Who knows, Congress might even have been able to pass legislation imposing a large tax on the outrageous, obscene multi-million dollar bonuses being paid by Wall Street to its top producers -- just in time for Christmas.

So if you're furious at how Mitch McConnell's Republican minority is holding America hostage, the time has come to do something about it. Ask your Senators to support changing the Senate rules that allow the Republican minority to obstruct the will of the majority.

Sign the petition: Fix the filibuster rules!

Additional Sources:

• Aside from the filibuster problem, there are other insidious problems with senatorial rules. For example, unanimous consent: http://michiganmessenger.com/40742/levin-blasts-republican-abuse-of-senate-rules-for-obstruction

• Another abuse is that of secret holds: http://www.politicususa.com/en/gop-secret-hold

• Here is an article outlining the preferences for change: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2010/12/15/929229/-Where-the-filibuster-reform-campaign-stands

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