Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Senate Doesn't Work

Don't believe me? Just look at the health care debate.

Not just over the past few weeks; I'm talking through the entire process. While the House wasn't exactly expedient in passing its version of health care reform, it hasn't fallen victim to the arcane trappings that the Senate has.


-When health care reform was still in committee, the Senate Finance Committee stole the show, hijacking the press and making it seem as if that committee's reform bill was the only bill, even though the Senate's HELP Committee had already passed a reform bill and there were three bills in various House committees.

Even worse, Finance Committee chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) didn't involve the entire committee in crafting the legislation. He created a "Gang of Six" -- a group of three Republicans and three conservative Democrats -- to write a bill that lacked a public option or anything else that truly reformed the health care system. Only once the bill was put before committee for amendments did the rest of the committee get a say -- not that it ultimately mattered.

-Once the Baucus bill passed committee, Baucus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and HELP Committee chair Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) met with White House officials (read: Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel) to combine the two bills. That lasted roughly a few weeks longer than it should've, during which time talk of a filibuster began.

The GOP, which had long ago positioned itself as unspoken defenders of the status quo (read: they weren't actively saying things are fine, but their tactic of "delay to death" effectively intimated as much), was long ago going to threaten a filibuster, but since there are 60 Senators who caucus with the Democrats, Republicans would need one of those members to cross the line and join them.

Enter Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). And Mary Landrieu (D-La.). And Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). And Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). All, at one point or another, threatened to filibuster the bill for one reason or another -- mostly the public option.

The House has no such rules. Once bills are out of their respective committees in that chamber, the legislative body meets to combine the bills through debate and amendments. The Speaker of the House -- in this case, California's Nancy Pelosi -- could end debate at any time and bring the bill to a vote. Everyone votes, the bill either passes or fails.

Not so in the Senate, where you have horribly outdated and arcane rules originally designed to serve as a system of checks and balances. Instead, such procedural matters as the filibuster have mutated into potential legislation-killers. Not agreeing with a bill doesn't simply mean you vote against it in the Senate; instead, you talk yourself to death in an effort to prevent a vote -- or even debate -- from ever happening.

-The Democrats have to defeat filibuster attempts twice -- they did so two weeks ago, when they beat back a GOP filibuster attempt to block debate. If all 60 Democrats hadn't blocked it, the full Senate would've never even discussed the health care reform bill. Once Reid wants to bring the bill to a final vote, the Democrats will need to block the filibuster again.

Lieberman's threat still stands, and Nelson had threatened to filibuster reform if his anti-abortion amendment failed ... which it did on Tuesday (see below). While Landrieu and Lincoln have not explicitly said they might filibuster, their opposition to such ideas as the public option make that possibility a reality.

In light of Tuesday's report that a gang of 10 Senators -- five liberal Democrats and five conservative Democrats -- reached a tentative deal to jettison the public option in favor of other ideas, a new filibuster threat has emerged ... from the left.

Illinois' Roland Burris.

While liberals in the Senate -- such as Ohio's Sherrod Brown and Vermont's Bernie Sanders -- have long been championing the public option, Burris is the first to step up and actually threaten to derail the bill over it. Is it an empty threat? Maybe, but progressives will surely like the fact that one of their own is stepping up.

In a lot of ways, the public option was a compromise. When President Barack Obama decided to forgo single-payer at the outset of the debate, the public option -- a government-run insurance plan operating completely off premiums designed to compete with private companies -- became the progressives' rallying cry. But conservative Democrats have balked at the idea, citing fiscal conservatism -- even as the Congressional Budget Office repeatedly asserted that the public option would save money.

In reality, the conservative Democrats were looking out for the insurance companies, who had contributed heavily to their campaigns.

Am I dismayed at the potential loss of the public option? Sure (more on that in a later post), but that's not the point here. The point is ... the Senate just doesn't work. It's a quagmire mixed in with a clusterfuck rolled up into a never-ending maze of confusion and frustration. We would be much better off if Reid could just craft a bill, bring it to the vote and let the proverbial chips fall where they may.

But all this talk of filibusters and cloture and deal-making in an effort to get 60 votes only serves two purposes: delaying the process and watering down the final product ... which, for those who haven't been paying attention, is exactly what the GOP wants.

The House, in terms of procedures and membership, is far more representative of the American people; in the Senate, the minority (in this case, super minority) party has far too much power.

Make no mistake: if health care reform fails, I put this at the feet of Democrats, not Republicans. The GOP cannot kill this effort on their own; they need a Democrat to join them, and there are a few who have threatened to do just that. If health care reform fails, the Democrats will lose big in 2010, and they might just lose in 2012.

But if reform fails because a vote never even gets cast, then we'll see just how illogical and corrupt our federal government truly is.

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