Saturday, January 29, 2011

Filibuster and Deliberation

Journalist Dick Polman regrets the failure of filibuster reform in the Senate:

This winter, a number of ideas were being kicked around to curb the filibuster (the word is derived from vrijbuiter, which old Dutch for “looter”), to at least make the tactic more difficult to sustain. Reform was long overdue. Until the 1960s, the Senate averaged one filibuster a year; during the ‘60s, it averaged 4.6 a year; during the ‘70s, it averaged 11.2 a year. Rampant exploitation of the rule became de rigueur during the ‘90s, when ideological fervor truly took hold.

That decade saw an average of 36 filibusters a year – although, in retrospect, that stat is a pittance. Since 2007 the minority Republicans have used the tactic on an unprecedented scale - 70 per year - to grind the process to a halt; last December, the Senate last month couldn't even pass the annual budget.

If the famed French social critic Alexis de Tocqueville was alive today, he would knowingly nod. Back in 1832, while observing the Senate in action, he praised the quality of its members, but warned in his writings that “a minority of the nation dominating the Senate could completely paralyze the will of the majority…and that is contrary to the spirit of constitutional government.”

The handful of senators who were pushing filibuster reform would surely agree with that. They had suggested a number of ideas – lowering the number of senators required to break a filibuster, bringing it steadily down from the current 60 during the first eight days of paralysis; requiring the obstructionists to actually stand there on camera and actually conduct the filibuster, rather than paralyzing the chamber by merely threatening to filibuster; requiring that a fixed number of filibustering senators hold the floor on day one, and hike the required number for days two, three, and beyond; requiring that the tactic be used only when a bill is up for final passage, as opposed to its use on any or all amendments.

None of those reforms will happen, not just because the Republicans predictably said no, but because a sizable share of Democrats also prefer the status quo. After all, they could be in the minority some day (perhaps as soon as 2013), and they might want to avail themselves of the same paralysis tactic – partisan payback, giving the GOP a taste of its own bitter medicine. What a far cry from the Senate of 1832, when de Tocqueville was lauding the members for their “lofty thoughts” and “generous instincts.” (The senators of 1832 had yet to employ the filibuster.)

The Deseret News has a different reaction:

The filibuster, that tool of gridlock, has survived yet another attempt at its demise. Last week the Senate rejected three separate attempts to weaken this legislative tactic, which allows a minority to stall legislation unless 60 Senators vote to end it.

Thank goodness they were smart enough to do so.

We wonder how many Americans would be surprised to learn that the Founding Fathers were fans of so-called gridlock. They set up a system of government, with two legislative bodies and three branches that could check each other, specifically to make it difficult to get things done. The idea was to create a system in which laws are produced through a deliberative process, not rammed through by a party with an agenda. The past two years, during which Democrats held a sizeable majority in the Senate, offer a prime example of the value of the filibuster.