End the filibuster! An interview with Sen. Tom Harkin
Sen. Tom Harkin has served in the Senate since 1984, and currently chairs the influential Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Before coming to the Senate, he served in the House of Representatives from 1975 to 1984.
Health-care reform has, in part, focused a lot of attention on the seemingly dysfunctional process that produced the bill. Your colleague Sen. Jeff Merkley has begun talking about it. Paul Krugman and Andy Stern have focused on it. Bloggers have turned their attention to it. But you've been making some of these arguments since the 90s. Is the situation worse now than it was then?
It's becoming impossible. The situation in the Senate is an offshoot of the old Newt Gingrich philosophy. Back in the 1980s when I was in the House with Gingrich and the Republicans won the presidency and the Senate, Gingrich was asked if the Republicans would ever take the House, too. He said yes, but we'll have to tear it down first. So that's what they did. Took them 10 years, or even more. But it was a constant attack. And now it looks like they're trying to do that in the Senate.
In the past, we've always had one or two or three senators who would try to block something. The most famous was Jesse Helms. He could tie people up in a conniption. But the thing is, when he went too far, his leader, Bob Dole, wouldn't put up with it. Neither would Trent Lott. And later on, even Bill Frist. You allow him to do so much, and after awhile, you say, that's enough.
Now we have more of the Jesse Helms. The Vitters and DeMint and Coburn, and maybe throw in Inhofe and a couple other newcomers, and they now run the minority. You don't have a minority leader putting them in check, saying we have to work together. Dole would never put up with what's going on over there. Neither would Trent Lott. We've had 101 objections from Republicans to proceeding.
The nature of those objections gets at something that I don't think people understand very well. The filibuster was supposed to protect debate. But it's often used to obstruct debate. There was an attempted filibuster, for instance, against moving to consider -- that is to say, debate and amend -- the Senate health care bill, and then the manager's amendments to the bill, and pretty much everything else that was attempted. The filibuster's aren't just against passage, they're also against process.
You're supposed to filibuster something that is a deep seated issue. But in September, we had an extension on unemployment insurance. We had a filibuster that lasted over three weeks. They held up everything. And in the end, the vote was 97 to one. Filibusters are no longer used to debate something, but to stop everything.
Tell me a bit about your reform bill. When you first introduced this, Joe Lieberman was your co-sponsor, right?
Well, I introduced that first in 1995, when we were in the minority. I'm going to reintroduce that again in January. And people are going to say I only worry about this because I'm in the majority. But I come with clean hands! I started when I was in the minority!
The idea is to give some time for extended debate but eventually allow a majority to work its will. I do believe there's some reason to have extended debate. If a group of senators filibusters a bill, you want to take their worries seriously. Make sure you're not missing something. My proposal will do that. It says that on the first vote, you need 60. Then you have to wait two days, and on the third day, you need 57 votes. And then you need to wait two days, and on the third day, it's 54 votes. And then you'd wait another two days, and on the third day, it would be 51 votes.
The traditional objection to these sorts of reform ideas is that you're removing a hallowed Senate rule and fundamentally changing the nature of the institution.
The history of the filibusters is instructive on that point. It was done to allow senators to get back to Washington. In those days, it could take a week or two for senators to get back from different states. The filibuster ensured a small group couldn't go into session before the others could get here.
Also, legislators wanted time to get word out to the populace so they could pressure their representatives. It was a means of protecting the minority who couldn't be here and getting some time for people to know what we're doing. Both of those reasons have gone by the wayside. With travel, people can get here in a few hours, and with television and radio and internet, people know very quickly whats going on here.
Have you tested the waters with your colleagues in general, and your Republican colleagues more specifically?
I haven't yet. I'm going to do that in January. We're going to send a dear colleague letter looking for co-sponsors.
Interest in this question has really skyrocketed this year. What was it about health-care reform, or this Congress, that brought the question to the fore?
Early on in this process, one Republican senator, Mr. DeMint, said we must make health care reform Obama's Waterloo. If we can defeat him on this, we can stop him on other things. That became the rallying cry. Stop Obama. Rather than try to work together to get a bill that could work, they decided to opt out.
in my committee, we had thirteen days of mark up. Republicans offered over 200 amendments and we accepted over 161. And every Republican then voted against it. When I tell audiences, people can't believe that.
It's just a bad situation. In the past, we had Republicans who wanted to do legislation so they were willing to work with you and make compromises. But that's not what were facing right now. In all the debt limit votes we've had before, we always got Republican votes. And Democrats always voted on Republican debt limits. This time, Senator McConnell told Harry Reid that if he wants to pass an increase in the the debt limit, he owns it. "Never before have we required sixty votes to pass a debt limit."
We've entered a new era here of outright stoppage at all costs. So that's what I'm trying to address with this amendment. I doubt anything will happen. But at least we'll start the process.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke.
December 26, 2009; 11:36 AM ET
Categories: Interviews , Senate
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