Oregon’s freshman Democratic U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley favors reforming a parliamentary procedure known as the filibuster, in hopes that doing so will allow the Senate to get some work done.
“The Senate likes to use the term ‘the greatest deliberative body in the world,’ ” he told some 70 union members at a breakfast meeting Nov. 4 sponsored by the Northwest Oregon Labor Council. “Well, I’m here to tell you, at least from my freshman two years experience, that it is absolutely one of the least deliberative bodies I can imagine. And we must change the rules of the Senate so that it can actually process legislation.”
Changing the rules of the Senate is no easy task. During the session it requires the support of 67 senators. However, in January 2011 — after the new Congress is sworn in — senators will have a small window of time to change procedural rules with a simple majority vote. Democrats hung on to control of the Senate during the midterm elections and will enter the new year with a 53-seat majority (two senators are independent, but caucus with the Democrats).
But will they do it?
A survey conducted by Public Policy Polling found that 64 percent of the public supports filibuster reform. President Obama, prior to the midterm elections, said that he’d support overhauling the filibuster. Republicans, on the other hand, have generally resisted filibuster reform. An exception is Indiana’s Senator-elect Dan Coats, who endorses it. The AFL-CIO also supports reform.
A filibuster is a form of obstruction, whereby a lone member can elect to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a proposal. Filibusters in the U.S. Senate require a 60-senator cloture vote to end debate and bring a bill to a final majority-rules vote. As it currently works, an obstructing senator doesn’t actually have to talk out his or her objections on the floor. Once an objection is made, though, the issue goes to a “special order,” which requires a supermajority vote and a one week delay for additional debate time. Meanwhile, the Senate can proceed with its normal business.
Three Republican senators — Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, and John McCain of Arizona — have standing objections to every motion, Merkley said.
Merkley would like to see the rules changed to require filibustering senators to speak on the floor for as long as they are willing to block the bill.
“So then, you — the American people — can see that they are on the floor blocking legislation and you can say ‘fine, I like what you’re doing, thank you for blocking it,’ or ‘we hate what you’re doing, let the vote take place,’ ” he explained. “Right now, it’s just a cheap shot.”
The use of the filibuster has increased dramatically in recent years. Only eight percent of major bills in the 1960s faced filibusters or threats of a filibuster; 70 percent did in the last decade. Last session, Merkley said there were 200 objections to the regular order of business.
“You no longer have real debate and motive,” Merkley said. “It damages the Executive Branch because you can’t get nominations confirmed. It damages the judiciary because you can’t get judges confirmed. It absolutely prevents government from making decisions. In the long term, this creates a bias against working people because the big powerful interests can have lobbyists night and day to seek that opportunity to get that supermajority and move forward, while on grassroots issues affecting working Americans it’s much harder to sustain the continuous push.”
Merkley used the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) as an example of why the filibuster should be changed. EFCA, organized labor’s top legislative issue, is a bill that would add more teeth to labor law and make it easier for workers to form a union. The bill had majority support in the 2007 Senate, but not the 60 votes to invoke cloture. In 2009, with seemingly enough support to invoke cloture, it still stalled.
“In 2007(EFCA) had sponsors who weren’t sponsors in 2009, when the real push came from very powerful interest groups,” Merkley said. “This is very discouraging. EFCA should have been voted on so all of us know where every senator stood.”
Merkley expressed further frustration over Republican efforts using the filibuster to block Democratic bills aimed at creating jobs and improving the economy.
“There were things we were trying to do to put people back to work — and absolutely opposed by the Republican leadership, primarily because it would put people back to work, and anything that improves the economy they thought would not be helpful for Nov. 2 (midterm elections).”
In one instance, Merkley had introduced an amendment to a small business jobs bill seeking to take $30 billion away from Wall Street and use it to capitalize healthy “main street” banks so those banks could get loans out to community businesses.
“Small business could create a lot of jobs if only they could get access to credit,” Merkley said. “At this point, credit had been frozen up. The concept didn’t cost the country a dime. In fact, it makes money for the country.”
Merkley said GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky saw it and immediately turned it into election fodder as Democrats wanting more money to bail out big banks.
“This is the sort of situation that just drives me nuts,” Merkley said. “We’re not talking about Wall Street, we’re talking about Main Street. We’re not talking about big banks, we’re talking about small banks. We’re not talking about unhealthy banks, we’re talking about healthy banks. We’re not talking about bonuses for Wall Street’s bazillionaires, we’re talking about jobs for working Americans. Complete opposite. Night and day. They said they absolutely wouldn’t support the bill with this piece in it.”
Another Merkley proposal would have provided low-cost lending to enable energy saving renovations to be done, creating jobs for construction workers while reducing energy bills for homeowners and businesses. “We could not move any of this with Republicans blocking it,” Merkley said. “If the minority believes there is something so critical, there has to be a price that they pay to carry that fight and it has to be visible — transparent to the American public so the public can respond.”