Saturday, November 21, 2009

Filibuster as Cancer

Though many might dismiss The Nation magazine as a lefty, liberal thinktank, it is often the home of some thought-provoking pieces. Case in point: an article in the Nov. 23, 2009 issue, in which staff writer Christopher Hayes pointed out the legislative quagmire that is the filibuster in the Senate, not to mention a wonderful example of hypocrisy from Connecticut's not-so-favorite independent, Joe Lieberman.

According to Hayes, the filibuster "has become a cancer growing inside the world's greatest deliberative body." The practice, by which one opposed to a legislative effort delays or kills said effort through endless discussion or debate. In order to prevent filibuster, the Senate needs 60 votes for what is called cloture; though Lieberman is an independent, he caucuses with the Democrats, giving that party 60 members in the Senate.

So for the Republican Party to filibuster, it would need one of those 60 other members to join the effort. Lieberman has threatened to join the GOP in filibustering a final vote on health care reform, and as Hayes notes, he's exposing his own hypocrisy in doing so.

In 1994, Lieberman and Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced legislation to reform the filibuster. "[People] are fed up -- frustrated and fed up and angry about the way in which our government does not work," Lieberman said at the time. "And I think the filibuster has become not only in reality an obstacle to accomplishment here, but it is also a symbol of a lot that ails Washington today."

The bill came to a floor vote and was roundly killed by both parties.

So in the span of 15 years, Lieberman has gone from a vocal opponent of the filibuster to threatening to use it if health care reform inconveniences his insurance overlords back in Connecticut in any way. Lieberman is not threatening to filibuster debate on the health care bill in the Senate; he, along with conservative Democrats Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana voted on Saturday night for cloture.

What Lieberman has threatened is to filibuster a final vote, if the bill contains anything remotely resembling a public option. His reasoning? Lieberman feels so strongly against the public option, he can't even allow the Senate to vote on it. You ask me, Lieberman wouldn't make a stink this big if he honestly thought the public option wouldn't pass. He knows it will, so he wants to use an arcane Senate rule to prevent the vote from ever taking place.

The House of Representatives has no such rule. Once a bill comes out of committee in the House, it's presented to the floor and debated and amended. Then the bill comes up for a final vote, where it either passes or doesn't. The Constitution allows for such ease of passage in the House, while setting up more complicated barriers in the Senate, in order to provide a system of checks and balances in Washington.

Think of it as ... a good idea gone horribly bad.

There's a misconception among the mainstream media regarding the Democrats' 60-member majority in the Senate. To hear some in the media talk, the Democrats need 60 votes to pass the bill; they don't. A bill can pass the Senate by simple majority; a bill that gets 51 votes will pass just as easily as a bill that gets 60. Where the party needs the 60 votes is for cloture; they need the 60 to block the filibuster.

I understand why the filibuster is in place in the Senate, but I also realize that it's outlived its usefulness. Like the Commodore 64, the filibuster has passed its prime; it's obsolete. I agreed with Sen. Lieberman's assertion in 1994 that the filibuster was a needless roadblock in government's efforts to pass legislation.

Unfortunately, the Sen. Lieberman of 2009 has lost sight of his own convictions, and that might cost us true health care reform. If reform fails, it will not be the Republicans' fault; it will be Lieberman's, and the Democrats' for not effectively handling him and bowing to the demands of the more conservative members. If Lieberman is threatening to kill health reform, I say threaten to take away his committee chairmanship.

Then again, with all that money the insurance industry's been giving to Lieberman, I'm not sure he can see that. All he sees is green.

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