Originally published May 11, 2012
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, has announced that on the first day of Congress in January, if the Democrats retain control of the Senate, he will reform the filibuster process. Senate rules can be changed on the first business day of a new Congress, each “Congress” being the two years of a Congressperson’s term. The first day is Constitutionally set as January 3, but is usually delayed for a few days. Rule changes can be done on a straight majority vote and cannot be delayed with a filibuster.
The filibuster was made famous in popular culture with an old movie called Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In it, James Stewart, playing a freshman Senator, engages in a classic filibuster – he talks himself into exhaustion. Vermont’s Independent Bernie Sanders is the last remaining member of the Senate who has pulled of a classic, with an 8 hour, 37 minute speech he gave on December 10, 2010, on the tax deal pending at that time.
Over time, the filibuster has evolved until it is a secret method to bar debate on a bill brought from the House. One Senator can file an objection to the bill and it can only be debated if 60 senators vote to override the filibuster, a process called cloture. The record-setting use of the filibuster by the Republicans goes back to the last two years of the Bush 43 administration, when the Democrats controlled the House. The Republicans fillibustered 139 bills, and only 61 reached the floor for debate. In the first two years of the Obama administration, they filed 137 filibusters, and 63 reached debate. Last year and so far in this year, 83 filibusters and 26 debates. When the Democrats controlled the House, the Senate Republicans killed 152 bills. With the Republicans in control of the House, they have killed 57 bills. Any bill not passed by the end of the two-year term of a Congress is dead.
The 74 bills that the filibustered killed in 2009-2010 don’t include the filibustered appointments. Those are not bills and are not counted as such. The total came in just under 300 successful filibusters. They have to be renewed after a period of time, and it fell to South Carolina’s Jim DeMint to renew them, a job he performed with unseemly relish.
In 2010, ahead of the Congressional elections, people were clamoring for changes to the filibuster rule, to drop the number of votes needed to achieve cloture or to require Senators to do a Bernie. Reid decided that if his party lost the Senate, they would want to still have the power of the filibuster, so he declined to change the rules. Now, he’s woken up to the way this has been so viciously abused. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed that the Republican’s on job in 2009 was to make Obama a one-term president, and the Republicans are using the lack of legislation passed as a hammer against the President. They have ignored the filibuster in their own media so it look like the Democrats have done nothing for three years.
If, as expected, the Democrats retain control of the Senate, even if they lose a couple of seats, Harry Reid will finally do what he should have done in 2009 – sink the Republicans’ vicious tactic which has kept our government stagnating for over three years.
I don’t think this is what Reid’s 2010 election opponent Sharron Angle meant when she told Reid to “man up.”