An eloquent case for filibuster reform
Senator Tom Harkin, who has been thinking hard about this issue for years, made what I thought was a particularly eloquent case for filibuster reform on a conference call with reporters this morning. Here's a lightly edited transcript of what he said:
"What has the filibuster become? A means whereby a minority in the Senate dictates what we can and cannot do. We have stood democracy on its head. The minority has the power, and not the responsibility, to [stop] legislation. The majority has the responsibility, and not the power, to enact legislation.
"The minority determines what the Senate does. It determines what the Congress can do...Therefore, a small minority in the Senate now decides what happens in this country."
That's the rub. Now, some will point out that the current crop of filibuster reforms won't change the underlying problem -- the 60 vote threshold -- and hence won't do away with the fundamental dynamic that Harkin is decrying. But Harkin argued on the call that the proposed reforms, which include doing away with the filibuster of the motion to proceed, eliminating secret holds, and forcing Senators to actually filibuster, will make it far harder for a minority to use the tool as part of a broader strategy to frustrate democracy.
That aside, the broader implications of Harkin's case are worth considering. His argument is that filibuster reform won't change the filibuster as we've known it; rather, it would reform what the filibuster has become. It has become unrecognizable. Previously, it was all about protecting the rights of the minority, and all about giving the minority a tool with which to slow things down and to alert the public to the imminent passage of legislation it considers worthy of more public attention.
In its current form, however, it has completely restructured how the Senate operates, creating the need for supermajority support to ensure the passage of anything at all. Harkin's point is that it doesn't have to be this way, despite the fact that many Democrats have internalized this new dynamic as natural and inevitable.
Harkin's formulation blows apart many of the objections from Senate Republicans to reform: That it constitutes the silencing of individual Senators, or that it represents a "power grab." In Harkin's formulation, filibuster reform will prevent the minority's ongoing "power grab." This is about nothing more or less than restoring functional democracy.
More about what's going on behind the scenes right now with the filibuster reform push when I learn it, but for now, it's good to see Harkin framing the stakes in such a grandiose way.
| January 18, 2011; 12:49 PM ET
Categories: Senate Dems, Senate Republicans, filibuster
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