Majority Leader Harry Reid and conservative Democratic Senators decided not to change the Senate’s filibuster rules when the new Senate met in January – the result is a disaster.
Tired of deadlock in the Senate? Blame the Democrats.
Sure, it is the Neanderthals running the Republican Party in the Senate who filibuster every possible improvement in American life, but the Democrats designed the rules that let them do it. Harry Reid may bluster and complain when a Republican filibuster blocks a nomination or stymies a bill, but every other January since 2007 he and a handful of Democratic conservatives prevent Senate liberals from changing the rules to break the power of the filibuster.
Unlike Roberts Rules of Order, which are based upon the principal of majority rule, the procedures adopted by the Senate in the 18th Century allow Senators to frustrate majority rule by talking without interruption – thus blocking any vote. Senate rules say that only a super majority – it was 66 Senators until the 1970s, now it is 60 Senators – can cut off debate and force a vote.
The filibuster is obnoxious in and of itself because, until the 1990s, the filibuster or the threat of a filibuster was used primarily by southern Senators to block civil rights legislation. As a result, none of the many civil rights bills approved by the House of Representatives between 1869 and 1957 – including voting rights acts, anti-lynching laws, and fair employment laws – passed the U.S. Senate. Only under the pressure of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s were laws finally passed to outlaw discrimination and restrictions on voting rights.
Now the Republican Party has used the filibuster 380 times since Democrats re-took control of the Senate after the 2006 Congressional elections. Here are examples of legislation passed by the House during the 111th Congress (2009 and 2010) that received more than 50 votes in the Senate, but were blocked by a Republican filibuster – The DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants; the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow employees to create a legal union by collecting signatures rather than participating in a company-dominated election; a Public Option provision in the ObamaCare Act; and the Buffet Rule, which would have created a 30% minimum tax for individuals with incomes over $1 million.
There was a strong movement among newer Democratic Senators to change the filibuster rule when the 113th Congress started, but in the end Harry Reid, Diane Feinstein, Carl Levin and other conservative Democrats, apparently without any complaint from the White House, settled for a few minor reforms. The impact has been painful. Under the threat of a filibuster, the Democratic leadership has dropped provisions banning assault weapons and large magazine clips from the Senate gun control bill. In March, the President had to withdraw his nomination of Caitlin Halligan, a liberal lawyer who pursued law suits against gun manufacturers, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – a training ground for future Supreme Court justices because of the prominence of the cases brought in Washington.
This frustrating state of affairs allows the Democratic Party leadership to have it both ways – trumpeting its progressive positions during elections – but collecting campaign cash from rich donors who understand that results are what count. You have to think about how their main constituents are the people that donate millions of dollars for their campaigns – people who are not excited about economic change.