In 1994, after Democrats lost control of the Senate, Senator Joe Lieberman called a press conference with his colleague Tom Harkin to announce their plan to reform the filibuster. “[People] are fed up–frustrated and fed up and angry about the way in which our government does not work,” Lieberman said. “And I think the filibuster has become not only in reality an obstacle to accomplishment here, but it is also a symbol of a lot that ails Washington today.” Lieberman and Harkin’s proposal to weaken the filibuster came to a floor vote and was overwhelmingly defeated by both parties.
Recently it was this same Joe Lieberman, now officially an independent but with a coveted committee chairmanship given to him by his Democratic colleagues, who announced he would use that very same filibuster to stop 35 million people from getting health insurance if there was any public option offered within the health reform legislation. As he no doubt expected, his grandstanding earned him an invitation onto Face the Nation, where he repeated his threat.
If there’s a consistency to be found here, it’s that in both cases, Lieberman seemed to take a delight in undermining the legislative priorities of his ostensible allies in the Democratic caucus. But the problem isn’t so much that Lieberman is wrong now (though, of course, he is). The problem is that he was right then.
The filibuster has become a cancer growing inside the world’s greatest deliberative body. What was once a rarely invoked procedural mechanism has metastasized and turned into a de facto supermajority requirement for any legislation. In the 103rd Congress (1993-94) there were forty-six votes on “cloture,” the motion to override a filibuster and allow something to be considered on the floor. In the last Congress, the 110th, the first one in which Republicans were in the minority, there were a record 112. Even without the filibuster, our system already has more choke points where legislation can die than almost any other liberal democracy. It’s rare for one party to control both houses of Congress and the White House, and to have as solid a majority as the Democrats currently do. But the filibuster confers such power on an obstinate minority that it distorts the relationship between elections and governance in a way that dangerously attenuates democracy itself.
The filibuster may seem like an arcane procedural issue to rail on about (we’ve already published excellent articles about it in these pages by William Greider and Thomas Geoghegan), but it has serious substantive results. America desperately needs a twenty-first-century social democratic reformation, but no such thing is in the offing as long as the filibuster remains in place. As I write this, there are almost certainly fifty-one votes in the Senate for a healthcare reform bill with a public option and good subsidies, the Employee Free Choice Act, and cap and trade. But there aren’t sixty votes for any of those.
The filibuster has been reformed before, most recently when the Democratic majority in 1975 voted to bring the requirement to end debate from sixty-seven votes to sixty. As a constitutional issue, the Senate makes its own rules, which means a simple majority vote can change them. It was, after all, Republicans who made this identical argument in 2005 when they threatened to use the “nuclear option” to override Democratic filibusters of their judicial nominees.
Many progressives then, shamefully, marshaled arguments in favor of the filibuster, and many today will no doubt fear that its revocation will come back to haunt us in the future when the right regains power. But the filibuster is a conservative impediment in the deepest sense: it maintains the status quo. And, Lord knows, this country needs change.