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Saturday, November 30, 2013


Harry Reid, the Democratic majority party leader in the Senate, recently exercised what is known as the nuclear option, a process by which the filibuster rule (in which only a vote of sixty senators or more can allow a filibustered nomination or piece of legislation to proceed) can be superseded and instead a straight forward majority vote can be taken for passage.  This was seen as a big news story, and it was, but it was also inevitable.  The Republican party had used the filibuster so often and with such little regard for their status as a minority party that the Democrats really had no choice.
It's important to remember that the filibuster is never mentioned in the US constitution and that it was not even used in the Senate until 1837.  The rules of the procedure have gone through many changes over the years; once upon a time a senator had literally to speak non stop on the floor of the senate to keep a filibuster going (the 1939 movie MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON dramatically portrayed this with Jimmy Stewart's Senator Smith talking himself hoarse during a filibuster). Sadly, the longest filibuster on record was Strom Thurmond's  24 hour filibuster of the 1957 civil rights bill.

I paved the way for that jerk?

The big change came in 1975 when the Senate decided to allow any Senator to proclaim their intention to filibuster as enough to require a two thirds (60 votes) majority to pass a nomination or piece of legislation.  It was this creation of a virtual filibuster that sadly opened the floodgates, making it far too easy for any member of a minority party to slow down or kill the legislative process.  And sure enough, as the country has become more divided the filibuster has been used more and more.  In the Obama era, with the Republicans reflexive opposition of literally anything the president has tried to pass through congress, it's reached a crescendo.  The straw that broke the camel's back was when the Republicans used the filibuster to deny presidential judicial appointments to the Washington DC Circuit  Court not because they had objections to the nominations themselves, but because they felt that no more judges were needed to fill the vacancies.  It was a dare to Reid to use the nuclear option, and, after years of extreme obstruction, that's just what he did.
Hopefully, this will bring an end to this absurd practice that stands in the way of democracy and the importance of elections.  Remember, the constitution allows the president to appoint whomever he wants to be his cabinet members as long as they are approved by a majority of the Senate; the bottom line is that when a president is elected, he should be allowed to appoint like minded people to his cabinet, that's really the whole point of elections.  The Senate vote was intended mostly as a formality to prevent giving the president too much leeway.
The filibuster gets even more undemocratic when used against legislation.  Again, the constitution allows that a bill that is passed by  majorities  in the House of Representatives and the Senate and that is signed by the president, becomes a law.  I think that's how it should be; surely that counts as enough checks and balances on a bill without adding yet another obstacle for it to pass .  (And even after that passage, a law can still be challenged in the courts.)
 There is a fine line between necessary debate and compromise and outright gridlock, and giving the power of the filibuster to any member of the Senate promotes the latter over the former.  And, so I'm not a hypocrite, I'll go on the record and say that I think a bill that passes the House and the Senate and is signed by the President should be a law even if it's a law I don't agree with.  Again, part of the reason we have elections is to vote for candidates who will change laws passed by previous leaders.  Even if congress moves in the wrong direction, I think it should keep moving.  A congress that does nothing weakens democracy and makes voters cynical and less likely to vote, which again weakens democracy.  So put a stake in the filibuster's heart already.

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