Ending America's Polish Paralysis

11/01/2010 01:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

I'll be writing three posts this week -- about three different post-election initiatives I think environmentalists should pursue. The latter two posts will be influenced by the results tomorrow. I'm posting this one before the election to emphasize that I don't think this strategy depends on how things come out.

The time has come to end the ineffectiveness of the U.S. Senate that's been caused by "Polish rules" -- the right of the minority (or of even a single senator) to block action. That ineffectiveness was responsible for the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and it's been a significant contributor to the public discontent with the Democratic Congress this year.

More importantly, the paralysis produced by the current Senate rules has made America dangerously unresponsive in a rapidly changing world.

I will say that as just an observer of our political process that if we do not fix how the filibuster is used in the Senate, then it is going to be very difficult for us over the long term to compete in a very fast-moving global environment. What keeps me up at night is China, Germany, India, Brazil... they're moving. They make decisions, 'we're going to pursue clean energy,' and the next thing you know they've cornered half the clean energy market; 'we're going to develop high-speed rail in the span of five years'... suddenly they've got high-speed rail lines going... And if we can't sort of execute on key issues that will determine our competitiveness over the long term, we're going to fall behind.

And the president sent the right message through Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in the follow-up, when Gibbs was asked if the president favored reform regardless of how the election came out: "It's called governing, right?" he asked rhetorically. "It is not always just a sport. It is not always just about who's up and who's down and who wins."

The key leader on the issue in the Senate, Iowa's Tom Harkin, has introduced a bill, which he also first introduced when the Republicans controlled the Senate.

And the Democratic leadership in the Senate has signaled openness to at least some filibuster reform.  That doesn't mean it will be easy, though, or that we should expect to prevail quickly and give up if we don't.

But we are making progress. In December 1993 I sat down with then Senator Bill Bradley and asked him how the Democrats might change the rules so that the Republicans didn't exploit them to destroy Bill Clinton's presidency. Bradley told me not to expect reform -- too many Democrats favored the power that they obtained individually by the existing Senate rules. A few months later, Bob Dole walked into the Oval Office and, predictably, told Clinton that the Republicans would use the rules to block public business. Clinton didn't fire back.

In late August of 1994, I met with then Vice-President Gore and urged the administration to change the conversation that was leading up to the Republican takeover by making obstructionism the issue, and calling the Senate back into session until it had voted, up or down, on five key initiatives of the administration's choosing. Gore conceded, "Well that is a strategy, and all we are pursuing is tactics, but members of the Senate won't put up with being kept in D.C. -- they want to get back home to defend themselves." The administration's tactics, of course, didn't work, and Clinton's presidency was blighted.

And in February, at a White House reception where I got my one chance to speak one-on-one with President Obama, I asked him what strategy he was going to pursue to prevent the Republicans from doing to him what they had done to Clinton -- using the Senate's Polish rules. Obama made it clear that he did not consider filibuster reform part of his agenda.

But now he does. And that's important, because it puts the issue on the agenda in a very different way. President Obama needs to remind the American people that allowing a minority to block action, so that nothing can be decided, is a formula for national weakness. The original Polish rules, adopted by Poland's parliament for almost a century, ended with Poland vanishing from the map of Europe. The lesson is clear, but it needs a strong national voice to articulate it. Environmentalists, too, should think strategically about the need for a government that can respond to new environmental realities. That means having a government that can act -- not a Polish parliament.

It's true that on rare occasions the filibuster has been used to block legislation that would have hurt the environment. But for every positive impact the filibuster has had, there have been a dozen negative ones. And Republicans already have the ability, under existing rules, to block by majority vote most important regulatory actions the Obama administration might take.

So it's time for environmentalists, for whom taking the long view should be a core value, to do so about reforming our politics. Whatever happens tomorrow, we need to fix the U.S. Senate -- regardless of which political party ends up with the most seats.