Thoughts on the Special Election and the Senate

I think a big part of the reason Coakley lost is that the left is mad at Obama that he wasn’t able to get everything the movement wanted when he had the supermajority. Perhaps the worst thing that happened for the Democrats this past year was getting this 60th vote. It gave the appearance of complete power but not the reality of it. Because of Franken/Coleman, the supermajority was in place for only four months, and the Senate was in recess for half of that time.

We on the left are blaming Obama for not giving us everything the progressive movement wants when he had only a short time it was even possible (and enough moderates in the Senate that perhaps it wasn’t ever possible). Obama is a progressive pragmatist – he’s not going for the home run on every issue, and he realizes that (if that strikes you as odd, consider that the current health care reform is more conservative than what Nixon proposed). Unfortunately, we have a purist fringe on the left that doesn’t accept anything short of liberal purity, and a purist fringe on the right that has taken over the entire opposition party to the point that no compromise is possible.

The Senate’s filibuster isn’t inherently a bad rule – it served the nation well for a long time, but only because it was accepted as an infrequent action to be taken only under extreme circumstances. Now that Senate partisanship has increased to the current level and the filibuster has become the de facto standard (it’s in use for over 70% of the votes the Senate sees these days), I fear that we’ve reached the point of complete government inaction. The GOP is going to use the filibuster to stop anything with the merest hint of controversy, and the chance to address our nation’s problems will be lost – we probably won’t see financial reform or attempts to deal with Anthropogenic Global Warming. They’re just off the table. And then when party control switches (as it will inevitably), the Democrats will use the tactic to stop any attempt to change Social Security or immigration.

Our country has major systemic issues that need to be addressed, but the partisanship of the Senate combined with the existing Senate rules means we won’t see efforts to fix them.

Incidentally, this pleases one of my most conservative friends to no end – he loves government gridlock because he would prefer the government not do anything at all. I may be cynical, but I’m not cynical in that way.

I think that the Senate needs to change the filibuster rules. I know that this would be to the Democrat’s advantage in the short term, but I think it would be good for the country as a whole in the long term. Eventually, the Republicans will control the Senate again, and if so, they should not be constrained on greater than 70% of their votes. So perhaps whatever rule change is invoked should be set up not to occur until the next Senate election cycle, or the next three cycles, or the next change in power. However it happens, I think we need it.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) has an interesting idea for reforming the filibuster:

“Today, in the age of instant news and Internet and rapid travel — you can get from anywhere to here within a day or a few hours — the initial reasons for the filibuster kind of fall by the wayside, and now it’s got into an abusive situation,” Harkin said.

He and the constitutional scholars agree that the intention was never to hold up legislation entirely.

To keep the spirit of slowing down legislation, though, Harkin’s proposal back in 1995 would have kept the 60-vote rule for the first vote but lessening the number required in subsequent votes.

He said for instance if 60 senators could not agree to end debate, it would carry on for another week or so and then the number of votes required to end debate would drop by three. Harkin said it would carry on this way until it reached a simple majority of 51 votes.”

You could hold something up for maybe a month, but then, finally you’d come down to 51 votes and a majority would be able to pass,” Harkin said. “I may revive that. I pushed it very hard at one time and then things kind of got a little better.”

I don’t know if this is the best idea out there, but something is needed.

Finally, there’s an interesting argument that the frequent use of a filibuster makes it unconstitutional. The Constitution specifies that the Senate should work by strict majority rule, and the role of Senate tiebreaker is explicitly assigned to the Vice President. When the filibuster is used as frequently as it is, it changes the structure of the Senate to require a super majority de facto, and it strips the VP of one of his only explicit Constitutional duties.

I’m not sure how much water this argument holds (IANAL), and I’m not sure who would have the standing to bring a suit based on it (the VP?), but it could be the argument that limits the use of filibuster because of its recent overuse.

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About Lance Finney

Father of two boys, Java developer, Ethical Humanist, and world traveler (when I can sneak it in). Contributor to Grounded Parents.
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