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Filibuster Reform and Our Dispiriting Congress

January 17, 2013

Often, these days, the news from Washington makes me think of Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Shine, Perishing Republic” and its vision of a republic “heavily thickening to empire.” Recent legislative battles – the fiscal cliff, the sequester, the debt ceiling – have all been fought to determine how best to undo problems that Congress itself created, all while unemployment hovers at 7.8% and the economic rebound struggles for gains each month. Instead of addressing actual problems and helping American citizens, Congress spends its time cleaning up after itself. As someone who believes that government can and should solve problems, this spectacle has been exceedingly disheartening.

Filibuster reform was, I thought, something I could get excited about. In the fall, it seemed that Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Democrats had finally recognized how corrosive the filibuster has become to public perception of Congress, beyond its detrimental effect on Democrats’ short-term political goals. When Congress doesn’t react quickly to national challenges, the public gets dispirited and won’t buy in to policy initiatives. As the party that believes the government can fix problems, Democrats should want Congress to be able to react quickly, even if they aren’t in the majority. A responsive Congress would engender confidence in its constituents in its ability to address their needs, and thereby increase public faith in policy initiatives like the Affordable Care Act.

Alas, it appears that any filibuster reform will be purely cosmetic. After extending the Senate’s first “legislative” day to allow further deliberation, Reid is currently supporting a proposal that preserves the minority’s ability to block debate on a bill with 41 votes. And, if they can block debate, they can block a vote. The proposal would prevent filibustering cloture, i.e. the ending of debate, but still, if the minority can filibuster the start of the debate, that amounts to precisely nothing. Democracy will still be thwarted, minorities will still wield majority-like power, accountability will still be nonexistent, and vital legislation will never see the light of day. I suppose, though, “there are left the mountains,” or freshman Senators who know that traditions can lose their worth (even if their reforms lack ambition).

Sidenote: To make the Senate most lowercase-d democratic, Democrats should be allowed to filibuster while Republicans aren’t: when Democrats filibuster, they more often than not represent a majority of the American people. That, obviously, wouldn’t be fair.

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