So you hate Congress. And of course, you're not alone. You’re not a political junkie who follows what they’re up to closely (or maybe you are). From what you’ve read, seen or heard, the last (112th) Congress functioned like a sausage factory populated by Hatfields and McCoys, unable to grind out anything but hot air. Word today that the new, 113th U.S. Senate has "agreed" on a reform plan meant to make it more "productive" (and who knows, maybe a bit more popular)…probably won't make you like them any better. And of course, you're not alone.
But it may be worth paying close attention - well, paying some kind of attention anyway, however briefly - to the filibuster reform deal that Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have struck.
Forgive me if you already know this, but for those who may not - the filibuster is a tactic used by Senators to obstruct progress and passage of legislation, or to block confirmation of judicial and other presidential appointees.
Back when Congress was known for reaching compromise on and passing bills rather than for avoiding common ground like the plague and passing more gas than legislation, filibuster rules required any Senator objecting to something or someone about to come to a vote to take a stand on the Senate floor, literally and figuratively; by speechifying for as long as necessary (or possible) before finally allowing a vote to occur, hoping to have changed a few minds and votes in the process. If you want to see a great Hollywood version, check out Jimmy Stewart giving filibustering a good name in the classic Frank Capra flick, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”.
That “talking filibuster” requirement made it a heavy lift to try jamming up the gears of government by delaying votes. That's why filibusters were pretty darned rare for a very long time. That's also why for a very long time, members of Congress were able to agree to disagree on a wide range of issues, filibuster at great length on occasion, and still get bills passed, still question and then confirm (or not) presidential appointees. Things got done.
But in 1975, the “talking” requirement was removed. “Virtual filibusters” took their place, with Senators able to block a vote without even needing to be on the Senate floor. And not just to block a vote. These fake filibusters have been used endlessly in recent years to block "motions to proceed", meaning a bill cannot even be considered and debated by the full Senate, much less voted on. To break the blockade, 60 of 100 Senators have to vote to end the filibuster - no easy trick in a fairly evenly divided Senate, like the one we’ve had in recent years. Starts to clarify why so few bills got passed from 2008-2010.
But that's not all. Increasing modern-day usage of an old parliamentary procedure called the “secret hold” has doubled down on the hellish hurt being done to our democratic process. This craziness allows a single Senator to secretly stop the forward progress of pretty much anything up for consideration in the Senate. Good news is, rules were finally passed in recent years requiring public disclosure of Senators who make these holds. Bad news is, most Senators have simply ignored the new rules, and gotten away with it.
Fast forward to today. We're still in national recovery from the 112th Congress. From 2008-2010, the Republican minority in the U.S. Senate used virtual filibusters almost 400 times, a new record. Woohoo. And that’s not counting those secret holds.
No wonder then that frustrated Democrats - having picked up a couple of Senate seats in the 2012 elections to reach a 53-45 advantage that usually goes up to 55-45 when northeast Independents Bernie Sanders and Angus King vote with them - kicked off the 113th Senate earlier this month with tough talk about filibuster reform.
Senators like New Mexico’s Tom Udall and Oregon’s Jeff Merkley have been at the forefront of advancing a strong filibuster reform plan that would finally begin to end the current madness. Key features of the plan:
- Return to “talking filibusters” only
- No filibusters on motions to proceed
- Instead of Majority 60-vote requirement to end filibuster, Minority 41-vote would be required to maintain it
- No more secret holds
Unfortunately, some Democratic Senators were wary of the plan. They say they’re worried about tables being turned in the future, about being in the minority and having less power to block bad legislation and appointments. But no doubt, there are also a couple who, like GOP Majority Leader McConnell and his super-suspect filibustering history, have other reasons for not wanting tougher reform of the system; something about not wanting to lose obstructionist powers that appeal to big-money campaign donors.
What this all boils down to is that for now, Democrats couldn’t muster even a simple 51-49 majority vote to push through a filibuster reform plan capable of being anything close to a game changer. Instead, we get some incremental progress out of the Reid-McConnell deal, a few changes that hopefully result in wasting a little less of our nation's precious time on delay tactics. The key Democratic "victory" appears to be an end to (or strict limitation of) filibusters on motions to proceed. But no return to the talking filibuster. And no end to secret holds.
Makes you wish someone had figure out a way to filibuster this filibuster deal.
Probably makes you hate Congress even more, too. And of course, you're not alone.