Merkley: Time is now to reform Senate filibuster rules
Filibuster reform will be first thing on the docket when the U.S. Senate convenes on Jan. 22.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, along with Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Tom Harkin of Iowa, are leading the charge for reform. They told reporters during a briefing on Capitol Hill on Jan. 3 that they have the votes needed to make change happen.
There are 55 Democrats in the Senate, and Udall says he has 51 votes.
Under the U.S. Constitution, a majority of each house have the power to change its rules on the first day of the legislative session by a simple majority vote. The Senate convened the first session of the 113th Congress on Jan. 3 — and the three Democratic senators introduced SR 4. Here’s what it would do:
- Clear the path to debate — Those objecting to legislation would only have one opportunity to filibuster legislation. Specifically, the ability to bring up a bill for simple debate (the motion to proceed) would not be subjected to a filibuster.
- Restore the “talking filibuster” — Those wishing to filibuster legislation must actually hold the floor and be required to actually debate the legislation. It would end “silent” filibusters where one senator quietly objects and is not required to take the Senate floor.
- Put filibuster supporters on record — 41 senators would have to affirmatively vote to continue debate, rather than forcing 60 senators to vote to end debate.
- Expedite nominations — The process for approving nominations would be streamlined, shortening the amount of time required for debate once a nomination is brought to the Senate floor.
Historically, the filibuster was intended to protect the minority party’s interests on extraordinary issues, and it was rarely invoked. But in today’s contentious political climate the filibuster has been used in record numbers (nearly 400 times in the 112th Congress) to block votes and debate, and the requirement for 60 votes to end a filibuster has proved virtually insurmountable. For example, much of the legislation organized labor has fought for to restore collective bargaining rights and to create jobs — from the Employee Free Choice Act, to the Bring Jobs Home Act, the American Jobs Act, and many more — never received a Senate floor vote because of the filibuster threat, even though the legislation had majority support from senators.
For these reasons, SR 4 is endorsed by the AFL-CIO and some 50 progressive groups — in a coalition called Fix the Senate Now.
Action on the resolution was postponed, however, because another filibuster reform proposal was introduced — this one by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Carl Levin (D-Mich.). It is backed by six other senators.
Merkley said the counterproposal “does nothing to take on the secret, silent filibuster that is haunting this body.”
The AFL-CIO and Fix the Senate Now say the alternative proposal is a recipe for continued gridlock. “It lacks transparency and accountability; it allows continued minority veto of all legislative matters; it continues to provide multiple chances to filibuster legislation; and it keeps the obstructionist status quo for many executive branch and judicial nominees.
“We will be pressing Sen. Reid [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada] to stand firm in support of real reform, including the ‘talking filibuster,’ ” the coalition said in a press release.
Sen. Reid employed a parliamentary procedure that allowed him to hold off making any rule changes on opening day. Under the procedure (he called for a recess at the close of the first day’s proceedings), each day is still considered as the “first day” of the new Congress, under which the Senate can change its rules by a simple majority.
While in “recess” Reid is meeting with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), to discuss the resolutions.
Jan. 22 will be the new first day.
Some of the most vocal opponents of filibuster reform are lobbyists who profit from the Senate dysfunction.
The Nation magazine reported how Republican-led filibusters and “silent holds” on nominations have resulted in some Big Business windfalls for corporations that just happened to be large contributors to the senators’ campaigns.
“Sort of an ‘everybody wins’ situation for lobbyists, lawmakers, and corporations, but pretty much a losing proposition for the rest of us,” writes Mike Hall of the AFL-CIO NOW blog.
The Nation pointed to Steven Duffield, vice president for policy for Karl Rove’s group Crossroads GPS, as one of the most vigorous rules reform opponents, who has touted his ability to get Republican lawmakers to unleash filibusters and holds and who, “literally sold filibusters, anonymous holds and the other forms of obstruction” during his 2011 lobbying work.
Sen. McConnell himself launched at least eight successful filibusters in the 112th Congress — including the jobs creation bill — at virtually the same time he was collecting campaign cash from special interests opposed to those measures, the Kentucky AFL-CIO pointed out during a press conference Jan. 4.
The state labor federation unveiled a new study by the non-profit non-partisan Public Campaign Action Fund illustrating the success of the Republican filibusters in killing legislation that would have hurt those special interests.
Some of the highlights from the report, “Cashing In On Obstruction”:
- On the very day debate began on a bill to repeal subsidies to Big Oil, an astonishing $131,500 in campaign contributions passed from the hands of oil donors in Midland, Texas into McConnell’s re-election war chest. Three days later the bill failed by filibuster.
- Companies that lobbied against bringing jobs back to America and ending tax breaks for offshoring have given McConnell $1 million to win his elections and look out for their interests. Big McConnell donors such as GE, Microsoft, and Exxon Mobil also have billions in untaxed profits stashed overseas.
- Despite once supporting transparency, McConnell has led the effort to block the DISCLOSE Act and keep Americans in the dark about the money flowing into elections. Wealthy individuals and companies spending millions in secret money have overwhelmingly helped elect Republicans, an essential step in McConnell’s ambition to become majority leader of the Senate.
- Sen. McConnell took the unusual step of filibustering a district court nominee, former trial lawyer Jack McConnell, who was vehemently opposed by the insurance industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce after Jack McConnell won a multi-billion dollar case against lead paint companies. Sen. McConnell has received $1.7 million from insurance interests, and has taken tens of thousands of dollars from one of the lead paint companies in the case and its parent company.
The report further states that McConnell gets 84 percent of his campaign cash from PACs and large donors and only 16 percent from individuals in Kentucky. He has raised some $45 million for his elections in his career, not counting funds he is already stockpiling for his 2014 race. The largest donor in the group of 37 is General Electric, giving at least $174,812 to McConnell over the years. It’s followed by Microsoft ($100,750), Koch Industries ($85,450), and ExxonMobil ($74,300).
“These 37 companies have collectively stashed $445 billion in untaxed profits overseas instead of using those funds to create jobs in America. GE, Microsoft and ExxonMobil also stand out, with offshore profits of $102 billion, $61 billion, and $74 billion, respectively,” the report says.
“Congress isn’t working for Kentuckians, but it is working for lobbyists and corporate interests,” Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan said at the Louisville press conference. “McConnell has always put his donors’ interests before the needs of middle class families, but now he’s helped to grind Washington to a halt when we need someone on our side.”
[Editor’s Note: David Groves, editor of The Stand, a blog of the Washington State Labor Council, and Press Associates Inc., contributed to this report.]