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Senate needs to swear off the filibuster altogether

January 07, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND

When people don't want you to know what they are up to, they frequently talk in code. It's why mass firings became known as "enhanced separation packages" and why you can bet that before the year's out, there will be legislation to cut funding for infant formula or something under the happy title of a "Jobs Creation Act."

At the moment, you might have heard a lot about the unpatriotic assault on Senate Rule 22. It's usually modified with "long-established" Rule 22. Poor, venerable, put-upon, innocent Rule 22 — better known to one and all as the controlling mechanism behind the filibuster.

Now that Robert Byrd has passed, no one can make a coherent argument in favor of the filibuster, in which senators can talk and talk (or threaten to talk and talk) and no one can stop them unless they can win a 60-vote supermajority. That's why, now that Senate Democrats are trying to roll it back, Republican mouthpieces are trying to protect the filibuster by calling it by its presumably less-offensive name.

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Democrats, of course, are not saints in this debate. Next time they lose control of the Senate, you can bet that they will be leading the defense of, uh, Senate Rule 22. Matter of fact, if you want to recall the last time that Democrats were more than comfortable with the filibuster, you have to jump in your time machine and go all the way back in history to the year 2005, when they were threatening to filibuster President Bush's judicial nominees.

At that point, Republicans hated Rule 22 and were doing everything they could to subvert it under what was referred to as — this is rich — the "constitutional option."

But now, Republicans are acting as if it's the filibuster itself that is somehow a cherished part of the Constitution. Republicans were right the first time. It's not. The filibuster's supporters also are acting as if the filibuster is a much-employed, centuries-old tradition in American politics. It isn't.

The filibuster is always a hero of the minority because it is used to thwart majority rule. As it stands, senators representing less than 13 percent of the American public can effectively block any nonbudget piece of legislation from becoming law, no matter how popular the measure might be. (The budget is circumvented by a contortion that gets around the original contortion, as anyone who remembers the "reconciliation" health care option can attest. Senate procedures are not for the faint of heart.)

The filibuster has an ugly history, it being most notorious for an attempt by Southern Democrats in the 1960s to block equal rights for blacks. And it is not the "long established" tradition that some would have you think. It is certainly not condoned in the Constitution. (In today's politics, the Constitution is like sex; the people who talk about it the most know about it the least.) The Constitution is very specific on what issues require a supermajority of senators for passage: Treaties, impeachment and so on. It was never anticipated that — as things stand today — simple legislation would require a 60 percent vote for passage.

Filibusters have been theoretically possible since the early 1800s, but no one ever dreamed of talking a bill to death until enemies of a central bank made the threat in 1837. Even after that, it never really appeared much in its modern form before the great civil rights debates 50 years ago. After that, the filibuster caught fire and has been growing exponentially ever since.

Now, a political cultural shift has taken what used to be a somewhat quaint, but temporary, way for a senator to show the folks back home that he was really mad, and turned it into a sledgehammer that not only crushes democracy, but further drives a wedge between two parties that essentially refuse to talk. So perhaps it's fitting that senators no longer have to talk, even when they're filibustering. All they need to is indicate their desire for a filibuster, then go back to their hot tubs.

Former U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale has, only partly, if at all, in jest, suggested that the best way to break the filibuster stranglehold is to go back to requiring that senators actually be made to stand up and speak on the issue under debate. Under this probably accurate theory, senators are such lazy cows that they would never put their ideals above their own physical comfort.

The filibuster is not without a thread of merit. A senator could use it to draw attention to an overlooked issue that he or she felt deserved more debate. But like alcohol, instead of having one sip, our elected officials had to chug the whole bottle. If the Senate could use the filibuster in moderation, it would present no problem, but it has proved it can't handle the intoxicating call of obstructionism. So today, thanks to our meaner, baser and more pig-headed political class, it would be best if the Senate swore off the filibuster altogether.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video under opinion@herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 at 6:30 p.m. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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