Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Democratic Majority Rejects Democratic Rules

Last week the Senate, which still has a Democratic majority, abandoned their effort at rules reform. They elected to continue to allow the elected minority party to control the agenda and decide what is the Senate is allowed to vote on. This an astounding and pointless capitulation given the experienced of the last two years.

When the 111th congress began in 2009 the Republicans has been soundly rejected in a succession of elections and where down to only 40 senators. At that time, Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, made the deliberate decision that the best way for their small minority to exert influence would be to exploit the byzantine rules of that body and try to obstruct everything. They could not win votes, they had no interest in working towards solutions. So they would drag their feet, and gum up the works. Rather than trying to influence legislation they would try and make legislating itself impossible.

In this, they were remarkably successful. They insisted that each and every piece of legislation would require 60 votes. Then they held together and tried to pour enough poison into each process to to peel off a wavering Democrat or independent. Illness, absenteeism, Ted Kennedy's death, and the Massachusetts special election meant that often there where not 60 votes to be had.

Despite the largest senate majority in a generation, Obama’s appointments went unfilled. His judicial nominations were blocked. Health care reform was caught in endless delays, watered down, and stuffed with embarrassing kickbacks in pursuit of a 60th vote. The DISCLOSE act was killed, gutting campaign reform and opening the door to unlimited secret corporate cash. The DREAM act, which would have a provided a path to citizenship for immigrants willing to server their country, failed despite majority support. Legislation to address catastrophic climate change withered and died. When it came time to debate tax policy, Obama didn’t bother to invite Democratic senators into the room. Their 58 votes were meaningless in the face of the Republican’s 42.

Initially, the Democratic majority was taken by surprise the the extent of Republican obstruction. The filibuster and associated tactics had been used before. The most famous case was when the Democratic minority was blocking 9 of Bush’s judicial appointments. The Republicans  threatened a “nuclear option” of summoning Dick Cheny to force a rules change in the middle of the session. But in this session, the GOP took the relentless use of these tactics to a whole new level. The Democrats decided, not without some reason, that it would be inappropriate to try and change the rules in the middle of the health care debate. The focused on trying to round up a 60th vote to advance legislation. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t.

Time and again, crucial legislation passed in the House and languished in the Senate. Rather than blaming the Republicans for their obstruction, the public punished the Democrats for their dithering, apparent spinelessness, and failure to act. The Democrats where handed a massive electoral defeat. The minority learned that majority will take the blame for failing to address the nation’s problem. Politically motivated, relentless, unprincipled obstruction works.

By the end of the session it was obvious that the Senate rules where broken. It was so obvious that all 53 returning Democratic senators signed a petition supporting rules reform. A number of proposals were written. The most popular proposal maintained the filibuster. It just added the common sense requirement that a senator who wished to filibuster a piece of legislation would actually have to rise, and speak, and hold the floor in order to do so. This minor, obvious change would have had a sweeping effect and gone a long way towards restoring democracy in the Senate and in the U.S.

The start of the 112th congress was the perfect time to alter the rules. Only 51 votes were required to end the tyranny of the minority. The obligation was clear. Their opportunity had arrived. And they blew it. After years of collective abuse at that hands of the minority, Harry Reid was unable, or unwilling, to find 50 senators in favor of rules reform. Instead, Reid settled for handshake a with McConnell and a shared agreement that the obstruction would continue.

This is a great agreement for McConnell. It’s easy to be against majority rule while you’re in the minority. Someday the GOP will be in majority. When they are, they may decide that majority rule is a good idea after all. I hope they have the guts to see it through.

No comments:

Post a Comment