Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bring Back the (Real) Filibuster

It's getting pretty bad in the Senate these days. The Republicans threatened to filibuster the decision to serve tuna sandwiches and salad for lunch yesterday, so the Democrats caved in and offered to drop the salad and serve potato salad instead. Okay, not really. But the Republicans did try to filibuster a spending bill, just to hold up debate on the health care bill.

Now, I understand that the health care bill is causing much heartburn in Washington these days. But I'm not here to argue for or against its many provisions and the forests of trees that are killed every time someone prints it out (not today, anyway). I'm simply frustrated with the filibuster.

When the Republicans were in charge, they didn't need a supermajority to get anything done. I guess the Democrats didn't have the guts to send a note to the Senate leaders saying "You know, I feel like filibustering this, as do 40 of my closest colleagues. Feel free to focus on other matters." The Republicans, however, are not shy about it. This is not a partisan issue. It's just the Republicans has taken an oft unused power and revealed just how powerful it is.

The filibuster was not always like this. Prior to the 1960's, someone actually had to stand in front of the Senate and talk and hold up ALL business (not just the specific bill they were opposing). This means that a Senator had to feel so strongly about something that he was willing to hold up all bills to stop some legislation from being passed. But now we have a system that allows other Senate business to continue and other bills to be passed, even while a particular bill is being filibustered. This appears to be the result of efforts by Senators from the south to block the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This confuses me. In filibustering the Civil Rights act, they prevented Congress from getting anything else done. So the Senators who wouldn't necessarily vote for the bill but still wanted to move on with the business of being a legislator were likely to vote to end the filibuster. Now, ending a filibuster is almost equivalent to voting on the bill, except you need 60 instead of 50 votes.

It would seem that this would be good, because Congress passing fewer laws isn't always a bad thing. But think about it. There is already a ton of pork in bills because the people who wrote it want to convince this person or that person to vote for it. That's just to get to the majority needed to pass a bill under normal circumstances. But watching this health care bill get passed, I realized it's that much worse! Now you essentially have to convince 10 more people to vote for a bill. So you drop this, add that, change this, until even the best bill ever written costs more, accomplishes less, and frustrates everyone.

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