Friday night on The Rachel Maddow Show,” Rachel finally highlighted something that had been irritating me ever since Wednesday, when she had Senator Debbie Stabenow on her show in the wake of the MA-Sen loss of Martha Coakley to Senator Freeball McNudemodel: the prospects for Senate Democrats altering or abolishing the filibuster.
In the course of interviewing Stabenow about the possibilities for health care reform and other pieces of the Obama legislative agenda, now that Senate Democrats no longer have a filibuster-proof majority, Maddow brought up the possibility of ending or amending the filibuster as a way to move forward: by denying Republicans the ability to filibuster (or making it much more difficult to do so). Stabenow replied, almost offhand, that it “would take 67 votes” to do such a thing, and was therefore impossible. Fair enough. If Democrats can’t even get to sixty votes on most things without giving away the store to the Blue Dogs and opportunists like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, they’d scarcely be able to get 67 votes on what the Republicans would (correctly) view as essentially a motion to neuter the small amount of power they do have as the minority party. Unfortunately, Maddow didn’t press her to explain or defend her statement that 67 votes would be required.
Then, Thursday night, Maddow had on Representative Barney Frank, who said – again, almost casually and offhand, in the service of making a different point – that Senate Democrats could alter or abolish the filibuster with a simple majority (51 votes or 50 + 1 votes, using the Vice-President as tie-breaker). Again, since she and Frank were already pursuing a different point, Maddow didn’t follow up with Frank specifically on how the 50-vote maneuver could be accomplished. But anyone who’d been watching Maddow’s show over both nights couldn’t have failed to notice that those two statements seemed to be directly in contradiction with one another). For anxious Democrats out here in the regular country (away from the intricacies of Washington parliamentary procedures) the answer’s of more than just incidental importance: could Senate Democrats alter or abolish the filibuster which the Republicans of late have been so abusive of, as Barney Frank alluded to? Or would it require the essentially-unattainable 67-vote threshold that Stabenow referenced.
Fortunately, apparently Maddow herself was paying close attention to this very subject, because on Friday night’s show, she had on Timothy Noah from Slate – who’s written extensively on the subject – to reconcile the two seemingly incompatible statements. Turns out that Stabenow and Frank are both right. Under normal rules, it does indeed take a sixty-seven vote super-duper majority to effect such a change to the rules. But, as you’ll see explained in the above-linked video clip of Maddow and Noah, there IS a way for a new VP to simply declare this congress no longer bound by the rules of previous Congresses, and to, on a fifty-plus-one vote, change the filibuster rule to whatever they want it to be. That’s what the GOP was referring to under Bill Frist’s leadership as the “nuclear option,” back when they were so “shocked” and “offended” that the Democrats were holding up a handful of Bush’s more-extreme judicial nominations. Senate GoOPers – and of course, their faithful propagandists in talk radio, FOX News, etc, were all bullish at the time on the “nuclear option,” claiming that if the horrible behavior of the Democrats didn’t stop, they’d deploy this “nuke” to the traditional rule of the filibuster. At the time, they had a bare majority which was much smaller than the current Democratic majority in the Senate. But it would have been large enough to accomplish this “nuking.” And therefore, it is more than possible for Democrats to do the same today.
It’s not as if there’s not ample reason to revisit the possibility of this “nuclear option” in light of recent GOP behavior in the Senate. Since the swearing-in of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth President, Senate Republicans have set a towering record for use of the filibuster. I’d recount it or give numerical figures, but the larger reality is that they have literally filibustered every single piece of legislation which was not completely uncontroversial in any way. All of them. This has effectively raised the number of votes one needs in the Senate from 50 to 60, slowing progress of legislation through our nation’s “senior chamber” to a crawl. Hell, even a crawl is progress. What we have, courtesy of the GOP, in today’s Senate, is in practice, much more like a standstill. Were it not for giveaways to the GOP and Blue Dogs, outright caving-in and a sixty vote majority since the swearing-in of Senator Al Franken, literally nothing would have been done by now, more than a year into Obama’s first term.
This is not by accident; it’s a consciously-pursued policy for the Republicans. In fact, though the sheer ubiquity of the use of the filibuster has set records, the underlying strategy itself is actually not new. It’s the same strategy that the GOP employed in 1993-4 so effectively to wrest control of Congress away from an already-fairly popular President. It was a simple, ruthless and effective strategy: utilize delaying and stalling tactics to increase voter cynicism about the effectiveness and honesty of Washington’s day-to-day operations. Increased voter cynicism leads directly to decreased voter turnout, with most of the attrition coming from regular citizens who may not follow politics closely, but have at least some expectation that their government will function to at least some minimal standards of efficacy. This leaves a disproportionate percentage of hardcore, committed right-wing activists in the actual voting electorate, helping ensure the tidal-wave sort of election year that the GOP had in 1994, when they won some eighty seats (and the Chair) in the House. It wasn’t that the Republicans had any particular record recently of running things any better than the Democrats, it was that they took the time to articulate and write down a vision (the “Contract For America,” which, despite being a vastly cynical and counterproductive document – one which the Republicans had no intention of ever even delivering vast swaths of, even if successful), and then to depress all independent, unaffiliated and Democratic voters through a calculated campaign of obstructionism. It worked.
So the GOP is figuring that, if it worked then, there’s no reason they shouldn’t just dust off that fifteen-year-old playbook and get it to work a second time. The only difference this time is that the country’s situation is far more dire than it was in 1994, and of course, the Democrats (not to mention the rest of the country) have had a chance to see that particular cynical GOP playbook before, and digest what effects it had. That’s why I hereby declare that although in general, the purpose of the Senate as the country’s most deliberative body, one which exists to put a brake on the “majority rule” trampling of the lower House, is a good thing for Democracy and protection of minority rights, it is high time to NUKE THE FILIBUSTER. Because the Republicans have abused it past the point of recognition (much, MUCH worse than the Democrats ever did when they were in the minority under George W. Bush or anyone else). Because the filibuster isn’t even the only delaying and obstructionist tactic they GOP is currently employing in their quest to throw sand in the gears of government (see Jim DeMint’s successful “hold” on Obama’s nomination to head the TSA). Because it’s time to remember, as my first-grade son would be happy to point out to you if you asked him, that 41 IS NOT greater than 59. And most importantly, because America is in too-dire a situation to be held hostage to the parliamentary parlor-tricks of a party which long ago clearly demonstrated that their first loyalty remains firmly to their own party and their own, increasingly alien, right-wing ideology – far ahead of their loyalty to this country we all share itself. Hell, the concept of the “public good” is regularly scoffed at in GOP circles as being something only for whiners and Marxists, as if our nation’s crumbling, dilapidated infrastructure and increasing inequalities of wealth are simply, as Phil Gramm said “all in our heads.”
For these reasons, and many others, it is long past time to push the button and NUKE THE FILIBUSTER. Let’s make Obama’s first term one we can look back and be proud of, instead of one that gave us another truck-load of cynicism and apathy – and another 1994. The Democrats may have lost their technical supermajority of sixty votes in the Senate last week with the election of Scott Brown, but doesn’t the watering-down of the health care legislation serve to show that the sixty vote supermajority was mostly symbolic all along? Doesn’t it prove that several of those votes closest to the Republican side of the aisle (many would probably say over the Republican side of the aisle), such as Nelson, Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu and Evan Bayh, were only ever marginally “Democratic” anyway? Harry Reid used to say that “Lieberman’s with us on everything but the (Iraq) war.” I wonder what he says, privately, about that now?
The point is, Harry – and Barack – and others, as Barney Frank said on Rachel Maddow’s show, you don’t have to keep trying to twist yourselves (and your signature pieces of legislation) into unrecognizable pretzels in order to secure the votes of people who’d be at least as at-home on the other side of the aisle as they are on our side. You don’t have to promise to pick up the tab, in perpetuity, of Nebraska’s financial commitment to Medicaid as a way to secure Ben Nelson’s vote.
You just have to exert your historical majorities in a non-traditional way. And wouldn’t it feel great, just in a “cleaning the pipes” sort of psychologically-symbolic way, to be able, even if only metaphorically, to NUKE JOE LIEBERMAN, to take away his power over every piece of legislation you send up to the Senate? C’mon, say it with me. You know you want to.