Herald-Leader Editorial

Urgent case for Senate reform; McConnell even filibustered himself

McConnell even filibustered himself

December 11, 2012 

Sen. Mitch McConnell has only himself to blame for the growing sentiment to tame, if not kill, the filibuster.

In his four years as minority leader, McConnell and his fellow Republicans have made a mockery of the Senate by overusing and abusing the maneuver. They attained a historic level of absurdity last week when McConnell filibustered his own proposal.

No wonder Congress's public approval rating reached an all-time low this year.

A filibuster once required a senator to hold the floor for hours on end, such as when Sen. Strom Thurmond spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Once the Senate eased the talk-a-thon rule, the filibuster became more common. Democrats used it to block judicial appointments during the George W. Bush administration.

But not until Republicans lost control of the Senate in 2006 did the filibuster become part of the Senate's daily routine.

In the 60 years from 1840 until 1900, there were 16 filibusters.

In the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency there were 130.

To end a filibuster, 60 of the 100 senators must vote to invoke cloture. (In the House a simple majority may end debate and force an up or down vote.)

Accomplishing almost anything in the Senate now requires 60 votes; just the threat of filibuster stops legislation dead in its tracks.

This is not what the founders intended. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison warned against a supermajority requirement. Hamilton said it would cause "tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromise of the public good." Madison said "the power would be transferred to the minority."

McConnell last week provided vivid evidence of Hamilton's and Madison's prescience.

Kentucky's senior senator called for a vote on giving the president unilateral authority to raise the federal debt ceiling. This was not the first time McConnell had tried to embarrass Obama by calling for a vote on something he knew Democrats had reservations about. But this time the Democrats called his bluff and agreed to the vote.

At that point, McConnell invoked the 60-vote requirement, apparently giving him the distinction of being the first in history to filibuster his own motion.

While this sounds comical, it's classic McConnell. He has been single-minded in his strategy to tie up the Senate with partisan tactics and procedural maneuvering, to the exclusion of almost any substantive debate.

As a result, the Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid, is proposing a rule change to restore the talk-a-thon requirement and prohibit filibusters in a few cases.

The filibuster as perfected by McConnell also is being challenged in federal court by the non-partisan political reform group Common Cause, four House Democrats and three individuals who say they have been denied a path to citizenship by filibusters of the House-passed DREAM Act.

Senate lawyers say it would be extraordinary for the courts to intervene in Senate rule-making. But the filibuster has been taken to extraordinarily undemocratic lengths.

In only eight of the past 27 congresses has a party held 60 or more seats in the Senate. If the filibuster as practiced by McConnell continues, we essentially will lose the Senate as a functioning part of our government.

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