Calling it quits, Bayh says Congress must change in order to fix the crisis–cites ‘filibuster abuse’ as key to dysfunction

February 21st, 2010 by Mike Hinshaw
The rise in "cloture votes" since the 1950s (from "Our Broken Senate," The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute).

The rise in "cloture votes" since the 1950s, spiking in the 110th Congress (from "Our Broken Senate," The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute).

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part discussion of how one recent election has topsy-turvied Team Obama’s legislative advantage. Taking the seat of longtime Democrat Teddy Kennedy a day after Part I posted, Scott Brown (R-MA) provides the GOP with the critical 41st vote that ends the Dems’ so-called “super-majority.” By the 1970s, Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), the senate’s longest serving majority leader, recognized the filibuster and other delaying tactics as serious roadblocks to conducting Senate business. Cited in Sen. Bayh’s Feb. 20 op-ed in The New York Times as an “abusive practice,” it is a topic for today’s beleaguered consumers, who wonder what’s wrong in Washington, D.C.

The problem is the modern filibuster has morphed into a much different procedure than the one originally envisioned, which was a method to ensure the potential for debate against hasty, ill-conceived measures and a way to prevent an overzealous majority from trampling roughshod over a hapless minority. Delaying tactics have been used in legislative bodies at least since ancient Rome, notably in Parliamentary procedure in Great Britain and again in defiance of Woodrow Wilson’s effort to arm merchant marine ships before World War I. The most famous “talk ‘em to death” filibuster may be Strom Thurmond’s record setting 24-hour, 18-minute opposition to a 1957 civil rights bill.

But when we commonly speak of such tactics–notably Thurmond’s marathon, or, say, Huey Long’s recipe-infused “pot-likker” rants in reaction to bills he regarded as bad for “the little guy”–we’re talking about (1) often passionate but always tiring and tiresome efforts for everyone involved and (2) more important, efforts that were very much out in the open. Back then, everyone in the Senate could see (and, of course, hear) who was holding the floor. And when “tag-team” efforts (such as the 57-day unsuccessful battle against the 1964 Civil Rights Act) were mounted, they took on the logistics and personnel requirements of a Broadway production.

Costless, painless–anonymous

But not so today, hence the term “stealth filibuster.” When Mansfield resolved to streamline the process, what resulted was a method to let filibusters occupy morning sessions but to reserve afternoons for “pressing business.” But as Roy Ulrich explains, Mansfield’s two-track system may have been expedient in the short term, but “over the long term it has proved to be disastrous.”

Why? Not only has the use of the filibuster increased alarmingly but also it increasingly is used as a tool for gridlock–and it can effectively be employed anonymously.

Too often it is now used as a dry, routine block of anything the “other side” wants.

Ulrich writes: “Boston College historian Julian Zeliger puts it this way: ‘Mansfield’s measure, which was intended to promote efficiency, inadvertently encouraged filibusters by making them politically costless and painless.’

“One way for a senator to let her colleagues know that she intends to pursue a filibuster is to place a ‘hold’ on a bill, thereby letting her colleagues know she will not accede to unanimous consent. Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein has noted that in the modern Senate holds ‘are routinely employed–often anonymously–against bills or people the senator has nothing against, but wants to take as hostages for leverage on something utterly unrelated to the hold itself.’

“If members actually had to hold the floor as in the days of Senators Long and Thurmond, most filibusters would end quickly. The reason is that we live in an age where this public disgust over partisan gridlock. Public airing of the old-fashioned filibuster on C-Span and elsewhere would not be something most Senators would want the public to see. In the current climate, it would be sound political strategy for Senate Majority leader Harry Reid to force the Republicans to engage in extended debate on a major issue such as health care reform. Best of all, no change in Senate rules would be required.”

Options for reform

Remedies exist, including the so-called “nuclear option,” which, according to a Feb. 10 piece in “Political Animal,” would require in today’s Senate that VP Joe Biden (as Senate President) declare current rules unconstitutional and, in effect, craft an on-the-fly workaround of Senate Rule 22. The “Political Animal” piece points out that this is not the brainchild of frustrated Democrats–the GOP (namely Trent Lott [R-Miss.] ) thought it up back in 2005, when they were fed up with Dems blocking judicial nominees.

The piece also quotes a few lines from Tim Noah, writing Jan. 25 at slate.com, but we’ve included a few more lines: “The first step in exercising the nuclear option, then, is for the president of the Senate (i.e., Vice President Joe Biden) to state, in effect, ‘Previous Congresses can’t tell this Congress what to do. Senate Rule 22 has no force because it was never agreed to by the current Senate.’ Biden would then state, ‘Under Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution, this current Senate may “determine the rules of its proceedings.” I say we change Rule 22 to eliminate the filibuster.’ Or modify it, if he wanted to opt for an intermediate reform such as a proposal by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to subject filibusters to a series of cloture votes that begin with a 60-vote requirement and gradually work their way down to a 51-vote requirement. Biden would then put the new rule to a simple-majority vote. After that passed, he would put the health reform conference report (or any number of other Obama initiatives currently stalled in the Senate) to a simple-majority vote.

In other words, the Senate got itself into this mess, and by the Constitution, it can take internal, procedural steps to get itself out. (For instance, the House–with so many more members–long ago dropped the filibuster.) Or the Senate could act on Harkin’s bill.

Whatever the Senators decide, clearly this gridlock begs for remedy. Here’s a quick snapshot of the increase of “cloture votes” since the 1970s, from a 2008 piece called “Our Broken Senate”: “In the 1970s, the average number of cloture motions filed in a given month was less than two; it moved to around three a month in the 1990s. This Congress, we are on track for two or more a week. The number of cloture motions filed in 1993, the first year of the Clinton presidency, was 20. It was 21 in 1995, the first year of the newly Republican Senate. As of the end of the first session of the 110th Congress, there were 60 cloture motions, nearing an all-time record.”

Implications for those facing unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclsoure

Now, why do we as consumer-members of a hard-pressed, foreclosure-riddled, unemployment-shackled economy care about stealth filibusters?

Although an argument might be made that the current GOP minority has taken obstructionist cloture/filibuster methods to unprecedented, Draconian levels, the truth is that both sides have used the tactic, and it’s evolved into a kind of arms race. And it’s become one of the chief methods to simply cut off any chance for meaningful progress during this financial crisis. It’s a quandary that Obama alluded to in his recent State of the Union address. On the one hand, why didn’t the Democrats’ “super-majority” get more done before losing Teddy’s seat to Scott Brown? (“But, [Obama] also chastised Congressional Democrats, saying, ‘I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills.’ “)

And in what appears to be a direct reference to heavy-handed stealth filibustering, he chided the GOP for “incessant opposition” and said “Saying ‘no’ to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership…. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. Let’s show the American people that we can do it together.”

Sounds good–let’s hope he gets that “jobs on his desk” that he demanded. Otherwise, doesn’t it sound hollow to hear reports that recession is over?

OK, true: the economy is finally showing some growth. In fact, Reuters reported on Oct. 12 that the National Association for Business Economics took “a survey” and quoted NABE President-Elect Lynn Reaser: “The great recession is over.”

Which is weird, because it’s actually the similarly sounding National Bureau of Economic Research who is charged with designating the officially recognized beginning and ending of economic dowturns. Yet, as of this posting, the NBER still has question mark on its Web site, indicating the end of this recession remains unknown. See the right-hand column, second hed. To be fair, the Reuters report also says that the NBER, “which does not define a recession as two consecutive quarters of decline in real gross domestic product, often takes months to make determinations.” So maybe Reuter’s stance is that NABE “scooped” the NBER and some day we’ll wake up and read that NBER has decided the Fat Lady of the Recession bowed out months ago and we simply missed it

Regardless of any official word, though, we know the Phat Lady of the Recovery hasn’t even begun warming up.

Obama knows that, too. He said in August that “we will not have a recovery as long as we keep losing jobs,” and reiterated that message in the State of the Union address and again Feb. 11.

But the jobs bill is not on Obama’s desk, and given the current Congress, no meaningful jobs bill is likely any time soon. Neither is a bankruptcy reform bill, which was killed by the Senate in April 2009, then snubbed again by the House, when it was omitted from a larger financial reform measure that passed in December.  On the stump in Nevada for Harry Reid on Friday, Obama unveiled a $1.5 billion plan to help with foreclosures in five of the hardest hit states, but when will Congress follow his lead with programs for the rest of the country?

Senator Bayh’s insights: ‘Congress must be reformed.’

The back-biting and divisiveness is so bad in Congress that Senator Evan (D-Ind.), well-known son of famous Senator Birch Bayh, recently announced he’s resigning at the end of his term next fall because he simply can’t take it anymore. He told Charlie Rose that he believes he can serve the nation better “by being in the private sector, either with a university, a philanthropy, or helping to create jobs by expanding a business.”

In an op-ed at The New York Times published Saturday, Bayh flat out says, “Action on the deficit, economy, energy, health care and much more is imperative, yet our legislative institutions fail to act. Congress must be reformed.”

He says there are “many causes for the dysfunction” on Capitol Hill: “strident partisanship, unyielding ideology, a corrosive system of campaign financing, gerrymandering of House districts, endless filibusters, holds on executive appointees in the Senate, dwindling social interaction between senators of opposing parties and a caucus system that promotes party unity at the expense of bipartisan consensus.”

What’s really telling is his disgust with the filibuster, as misused today: In a nearly 1,800-word piece, Bayh devotes almost 400 words specifically to the filibuster, calling it “a practice increasingly abused by both parties . . . ”

The full piece is well worth the read, given the insight from someone with such a rich family history in U.S. politics, but here’s some of the highlights from his section on the filibuster:

  • “Historically, the filibuster was employed to ensure that momentous issues receive a full and fair hearing. Instead, it has come to serve the exact opposite purpose — to prevent the Senate from even conducting routine business.”
  • “Last fall, the Senate had to overcome two successive filibusters to pass a bill to provide millions of Americans with extended unemployment insurance. There was no opposition to the bill; it passed on a 98-0 vote. But some senators saw political advantage in drawing out debate, thus preventing the Senate from addressing other pressing matters.”
  • “The minority has a right to voice legitimate concerns, but it must not employ this tactic to prevent progress on everything at a critical juncture for our country.”
  • “. . . under current rules just one or two determined senators can stop the Senate from functioning. Today, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to stop a vote. . . .”

Critics are sure to chime in with remarks about “quitting on the job” or “giving up and giving in,” but maybe he just gave out. One thing’s for sure: when somebody like Bayh packs it in, it’s a sure sign that dysfunction reigns, and those of us huddled down in trenches are gonna have to make some tough decisions on our own.

We can hope, of course–but evidently we can’t wait on Congress.

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If you are overwhelmed by debt, filing for bankruptcy protection may be your most pragmatic alternative. If you are facing foreclosure of your home (sometimes referred to as your “primary residence,” as opposed to a second home, or “vacation home”),  bankruptcy protection may be your best route to saving the home. If you are struggling with medical bills, you may be in a special category for setting debt aside, and if you have problems with credit-card debt, please know the laws have changed recently. Whatever you do, before making major, life-changing  financial decisions, please consider consulting a trained, experience attorney. For bankruptcy basics, please see:

Principles of bankruptcy

Basics of bankruptcy

Introduction to Chapter 7

Introduction to Chapter 13

The rise in "cloture votes" since the 1950s (from "Our Broken Senate," The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute).

The rise in "cloture votes" since the 1950s (from "Our Broken Senate," The Journal of the American Enterprise Institute).