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Jonathan Backer

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The Freshman Filibuster Reformers

Posted: 11/09/2012 11:12 am

Voters did not go to the polls Tuesday for two more years of congressional dysfunction.

As Harry Reid noted: “It’s time to put politics aside, and work together to find solutions. The strategy of obstruction, gridlock and delay was soundly rejected by the American people.”

Elections have, or should have consequences. And with a new cohort of Senate reformers ushered in through the 2012 election, we now have a real chance at reforming the rules governing the upper chamber, the very rules at the heart of legislative paralysis.

Of the 12 new senators elected, eight endorsed filibuster reform during the campaign. Senators-elect Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Mazie Hirono (HI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Chris Murphy (D-CT) Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Angus King (I-ME) join a chamber where the appetite for combating filibuster abuse is growing. In January of 2011, the Senate voted 44-51 to change the Senate rules and rein in obstructionist activity. Five of the freshman reformers replace senators who voted against the rules changes.

On the first day of the legislative session, rules changes can be enacted with a simple majority vote. With the new additions, a growing consensus within the Senate itself, and Reid’s leadership, filibuster reform is firmly within reach. Now, the public must demand action.

Legislative dysfunction paralyzed the 112th Congress from doing more to revive an ailing economy. Congress has enacted fewer laws over the past two years than any Congress since Harry Truman, and the filibuster played a starring role in the marked lack of productivity. Why? Senate rules have evolved so that obstructing senators need not even be present in the chamber to block passage of legislation. With the emergence of the costless filibuster, a handful of senators can stymie legislative action while expending zero political capital and facing little accountability. Today’s filibuster works as a minority veto.

The breakdown of majority rule in the Senate threatens the entire country, and this Congress’ (lack of) performance has made the stakes clear to the electorate. Congress has not passed a budget since 2009 and has failed to pass any of the 12 annual appropriations bills in 2012.

And, due to the magnitude of the problem, Congress engages in procedural gymnastics when it confronts the need for must-pass legislation. In order to avoid a default on the sovereign debt of the United States in 2011, Congress created a bipartisan Super Committee whose deficit reduction proposals could not be filibustered.

Though Reid previously opposed filibuster reform, he has resolved to press the issue in the new Congress. In his first post-election press conference, Reid reaffirmed his intention to curb filibuster abuse to make the Senate a “more meaningful place.”

President Obama’s legacy will be determined in no small measure by the new Congress’ ability to overcome the obstruction that plagued its predecessor. The president seemed to sense this in his victory speech, saying:

By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won't end all the gridlock or solve all our problems or substitute for the painstaking work of building consensus and making the difficult compromises needed to move this country forward. But that common bond is where we must begin.

But finding common ground, even if it is attainable in a time of bitter partisan divide, is not enough to ensure a functional, modern government. The rules make it too easy for a handful of senators, even a single senator, to cripple the federal government’s ability to make law. The Senate must heed the electorate’s repudiation of congressional dysfunction and enact meaningful filibuster reform in January. 

 
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