by Jeremy Leaming
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has stridently led obstructionism since Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008. The senator, as many have noted, claimed his Party’s top initiative during President Obama’s first term was to ensure he would not serve a second. That initiative failed miserably.
But McConnell, representing a solid red state, has nothing to fear from refusing to change, so he’ll continue to scuttle or slow the president’s judicial and executive branch nominations and likely any policy advanced by the administration. One of McConnell’s greatest tools is the threat of a filibuster, essentially requiring 60 senators to allow floor action on a whole range of matters. Posting for The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Ezra Klein says changing the filibuster will not “fix the Senate,” but explains why McConnell is “furious” about renewed discussion of blunting the tool McConnell has used to make the Senate virtually useless. (Klein also notes hypocrisy of politicians on both sides of the argument – at one time McConnell supported changing the filibuster, and Sen. Harry Reid, now the Majority Leader, opposed altering it.)
But things have dramatically changed since McConnell was a leader in the majority. The filibuster once a rarity has become all too frequent. As Michael McAuliff noted for The Huffington Post, Reid has “faced 385 filibusters during his leadership while Lyndon Johnson had to deal with only one when he ran the Senate.”
Earlier this year, Reid took to the Senate floor to admit he was wrong on rejecting filibuster reform, and he is now suggesting that when the new Senate is seated it would only take a 51-vote majority to reform the filibuster. Reid revealed support for a plan to reform the filibuster that has been trumpeted by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). This year, Merkley has knocked Republican obstructionism of the Paycheck Fairness Act, blasting his colleagues for refusing to “allow a debate on the vision of equal pay for equal work.” He also chastised Republicans for blocking debate on the Buffet rule, a measure aimed at making the superrich pay more in taxes. “It is wrong that millionaires and billionaires are paying a lower tax rate than many of our working families,” he said in an April 16 statement on the Republican filibuster.
While some believe changing the filibuster -- to make it more difficult to use by requiring senators to actually explain themselves publicly and for sustained floor action to keep the filibuster alive -- will not make much difference in a deeply divided Senate, others are more optimistic.
The New York Times editorial board in a Nov. 12 piece, urged Reid to “seize the moment,” and pass the reform plan advanced by Udall and Merkley. “Rather than allow a single senator to raise an objection that triggered a 60-vote requirement, their plan would require 10 signatures to start a filibuster and would then force an increasingly large group of members to speak continuously on the floor to keep it going. Senators could not hide in the cloakrooms but would have to face the public on camera to hold up a judge’s confirmation, a budget resolution bill.”
The Brennan Center for Justice has also weighed in on the matter with a report issued earlier this month. It found, in part, that during the last three Congresses, senators expended enormous amounts of time fighting the filibuster, far more than “any other time since at least World War II.”
One of the study’s findings showed that on average “it has taken 188 days to confirm a judicial nominee during the current Congress,” which has helped lead to a high number of vacancies on the federal bench.
Filibuster reform may not dampen McConnell’s desire to obstruct Obama administration policy and nominees, but it will likely make obstructing work in the Senate a heavier lift. The senator from Kentucky has shown little, if any, interest in a functioning Senate. But as a co-author of the Brennan Center study noted reforming the filibuster should just be the start of other measures to turn the Senate around. McConnell is working feverishly to block that first step.
[image via Gage Skidmore]