Winston Churchill famously remarked that democracy is the worst form of government... except for all the other forms. He was right. Democracy is unbelievably messy, convoluted, and sometimes maddening. But despite these drawbacks, it does not have to be dysfunctional or impossible. In fact, the whole idea of democracy is government by the people, of the people, and for the people, so why is it that anything but the votes of the people are allowed to decide political measures?
Yet that is precisely what the filibuster does. Unlike a simple nay vote on a measure that a Senator disagrees with, it is an insidious mechanism to prevent a vote on the measure in the first place, with the goal of killing it by running out the clock.
That bears repeating. It prevents a vote on a measure, which is essentially the same as a trial attorney refusing to let a jury deliver a verdict through a never-ending closing argument. If that sounds ridiculous, it is. What makes it even worse is that the filibuster does not need to involve actual debate on the measure but can be accomplished by almost any tactic that plays for time, including objecting to the preliminary motion to proceed to the measure.
Given all this, would it not make sense to abolish the filibuster entirely? It would, but that point seems to be lost on both political parties.
For Republicans, the filibuster is the weapon of choice. They use it more liberally than they use A1 sauce on their medium-rare steaks at tTe Capital Grille. Using the filibuster to block any measure that President Obama wants passed has become a veritable pastime for the GOP. It seems to be completely besides the point that the party which is always complaining about gridlock in Washington espouses the very thing that creates that gridlock: the filibuster!
Perhaps they need a hobby. Or perhaps they simply need to recognize how destructive their habit of obstructionism is and the precedent that they are setting for future Republican Presidencies that will no doubt suffer from payback by the Democrats. It is bad enough that our two parties cannot seem to agree on whether the sun is out but it is made exponentially worse when political maneuvers like the filibuster are used for destruction of the other party's agenda instead of as legislative tools.
On the Democratic side, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada has the right idea. He wants to change the rules of the filibuster through a simple majority vote comprising only Democratic Senators, a move known as the 'nuclear option.' But even he is hesitant to abandon the filibuster entirely and just wants to prevent the Republicans from using it against Obama's nominations, particularly to the National Labor Relations Board. The reason, ostensibly, is that the Senator is afraid that without a filibuster mechanism in place, his own party may not have the ability to respond to Republican overreaches in the future.
That is a valid concern but here is a bigger question for the Senator: why is it that the Senate cannot simply conduct all business on the basis of its merits and not require complicated mathematical gambits to get something done (cloture, the act of shutting down a filibuster, requires 60 votes instead of a simple majority)? The need for super majorities is exactly what leads to political horse trading and pork barrel amendments. Abolishing that across the board would be the more democratic and sane way to govern.
If a Senator has a problem with a measure, they should simply vote their conscience and then let the world see how they voted. Filibustering is really just another way of blackmailing the other party and of refusing to take responsibility for governing - and that is precisely the type of dysfunction that gives democracy a bad name.
I applaud Senator Reid for his willingness to fight filibuster abuse, but if he is going to do it, he should do it all the way and not just for a narrow victory.
SANJAY SANGHOEE is a political and business commentator. He is a banker, has an MBA from Columbia Business School, and is the author of "Killing Wall Street". For more information, please visit www.killingwallstreet.com
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