Filibusting the Tyranny of the Minority

The Senate will soon discuss potential ways of modifying the filibuster so that, basically, the Republican minority will no longer be able to capriciously and maliciously block legislation and presidential appointments.  As has been noted in many stories, the filibuster hath run amok.

According to official Senate records, since 2007, when the Democrats took control of the Senate, the filibuster has been invoked 391 times or about 78 times per year for the past 5 years.  In contrast, between 1919 and 1970, the filibuster was used only 56 times.  That works out to just a smidgen over once per year over a 51 year period.  So even though use of the filibuster has been on an uptick since 1970, things really haven’t gone bananas until quite recently.  Instead of a means of tempering the power of the majority, the filibuster has become a deadly weapon in the hands of a dying minority.

A dying minority, I say?  Yes, I do.  Much talk occurred after the last presidential election about how out of touch Republican candidates appeared to be.  They seem to have focussed their campaign efforts on a largely straight, white male audience, and then appeared surprised when others also voted.  But don’t count out the Republicans just yet.  They have many ways to maintain power and control.

Let’s start with this past election.  Republicans received a minority of votes this past election.  This fact is easily reflected in the presidential race, but is hidden in the congressional races.  ThinkProgress, however, breaks it down.

Nationally, votes for Democratic congressional candidates outnumbered votes for Republican congressional candidates by 1,362,351.  Another way of looking at it, Democratic votes led Republican votes 49.15% to 48.03%.  Yet and still, the Republican Party continues to control the House of Representatives.  The 113th Congress, which convened for the first time on January 3, 2013, has 233 Republicans, 200 Democrats, 0 independents, and 2 vacancies.  More votes did not equal control of the House for the Democrats.

The Rachel Maddow Show aired a segment recently which further explained this phenomenon on the state level.  For example, Michigan sends 14 Representatives to the House.  Michigan went “blue” this last presidential election, favoring President Obama by nearly 10 points over Mitt Romney.  As befitting a “blue” state, more Michigan voters voted for Democratic candidates over Republican ones:  2,327,985 vs. 2,086,804 or 53% vs. 47%.  But guess what?  Michigan is sending to the 113th Congress 5 Democrats and 9 Republicans.  Not so blue.

Both Rachel Maddow and ThinkProgress blame gerrymandering on these skewed results.  Yep and yep.

In 2010 in Michigan and in state houses across the country, Republicans took the majority.  They took control just in time to redraw congressional and state legislative districts after the 2010, decennial national census.  Historically, both parties have been guilty of redrawing district lines to favor themselves.  However, Tea Party-happy Republican victors from 2010 engaged in gerrymandering with an enthusiasm and élan never before displayed.  Republicans redrew congressional districts in a way to ensure that areas heavy with Democratic voters are corralled into only one or two districts, thus muting their influence.  The results are quite clear.  Republicans lost, and yet they won.

In another country, in another time, when a minority artificially held on to political power over a majority it was called apartheid.  In this country, we call it politics.

US political history has always been about compromise and protecting minorities against the tyranny of majorities.  This only works when all involved agree to abide by unwritten rules of etiquette guaranteeing that business as usual can take place.  Nowhere has the breakdown of this political etiquette been more transparent than in the chambers of the United States Senate.

As already noted, Republicans have invoked the filibuster at a record rate ever since Democrats took control of the Senate after the 2006 midterm election.  Thus, to pass anything in the Senate one needs 60 votes to first end the filibuster before a vote on the actual bill can take place.  A simple 50% plus one majority isn’t sufficient.  So even if a bill has the votes to otherwise pass by a simple majority, if it does not have the 60 votes to end an all-to-common filibuster, the bill fails.  Via the filibuster, we have a minority controlling the will of the majority.  Apartheid.

Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid has finally had enough of all this and has called for reforms in the filibuster rules for the 113th congress.  He failed to do so at the start of the 112th Congress two years ago, and likely has rued the day.  I hope he maintains his conviction to see true reform happen.  The strong filibuster reform bill, by Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Tom Harkin of Iowa would, among other things, require filibustering senators to stand and talk on the Senate floor, rather than allow them to mutter “I’m filibustering this bill” and go home.

Another, weaker bill maintains the sort of we-won’t-filibuster-too-much “gentlemen’s agreement” that has worked so well over the past five years.

Typically, it take 67 votes to change the operating rules of the Senate.  One school of thought believes that the Senate can change its rules with a simple majority vote on the first day of business of the new Congress.  The first day was last Thursday, but Senator Reid put the chamber in recess, effectively elongating the first day of business, so that negotiations on filibuster reform can continue.  Another school of thought, though, has called a simple majority vote to change Senate rules a “nuclear” option, and laments that change invoked in such a way might lead to further division and partisanship.

Look, first off “nuclear option” is a hackneyed expression of political hyperbole which pops up anytime anyone proposes doing something to end gridlock in the Senate.  So enough already.  Second, you can’t get more partisan than 391 filibusters over five years.  Really, you can’t.  So to suddenly expect everyone — i.e., Republicans desperately trying to cling to power and relevance — to behave and play nice is beyond naive.  It’s dangerously stupid.

The Republicans have seen the future and it scares them.  California represents the future.  In my home state, Republicans have very little relevance at all.  There are no Republicans elected to statewide office.  And Democrats hold a 2/3 majority in both houses of the state legislature, meaning they can pass whatever they want, including tax hikes, without the involvement of any Republicans at all.  California escaped the gerrymandering trap by installing a non-partisan, citizens council to redraw district boundaries for congressional and legislative boundaries.  And while only kooky Tea Party types can win primary races these days, as in much of the country, none have so far been able to win statewide races in California.

If other states follow California’s example, then the Republican Party will indeed have something to worry about.  Which is why they are going through such lengths to ensure that they can control things whether they are in power or not.  We have a chance to temper their rule-from-behind strategy, in the Senate at least.  Let’s hope we take it.  If we don’t, then watch out for more, better, faster filibusters to come.

© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.


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