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Endless Blockade for the Senate Pussyfooters

January 25, 2013 - by Donny Shaw

Led by Harry Reid, Senate Democrats have officially squandered their best chance to bring more democracy to the Senate in years.

By a vote of 78-16 , the Senate last night approved a new rules package that keeps in place the procedural loopholes have turned the Senate into a brick wall for sensible legislation. Under the new rules it will still be possible for a single senator to halt progress on a bill, or even on a motion to proceed to a bill, simply by stating that they intend to filibuster. In recent years, this procedure, commonly known as the “silent filibuster,” has prevented the Senate from passing even the most routine, non-controversial legislation.

Last night’s vote ends a weeks-long debate over reforming the filibuster in which a vast majority of the Democrats expressed support for ending the silent filibuster and requiring that any senator who wants to filibuster must do so by standing up in front of the Senate and speaking. The basic idea of the pro-reform Democrats was that the standard Senate rules should allow for bills to be passed by the affirmative votes of a majority of those elected and serving in the Senate. They didn’t want to end the minority party’s ability to filibuster, rather they wanted to put the onus of the filibuster on the senator(s) who want to obstruct.

In the end, Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and a handful of senior senators from both parties (most notably, McCain and Levin), struck a backroom deal to preserve the silent filibuster and make a few small changes to other areas of Senate procedure.

Reid’s stated reasoning for keeping the silent filibuster in tact: “I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold.”

In other words, Reid doesn’t want too much democracy in the decision-making process. And why would he, or any of the other senators he worked with to kill the reform? They’ve all managed to be continually re-elected and have risen the ranks of power under the current rules. On average, Reid, McConnell, McCain, and Levin have managed to keep their jobs in the Senate for more than a quarter of a century, and they are among the most powerful members of the chamber. They’re not exactly a crew you would expect to really shake things up.

The silent filibuster is an ideal tool for special interests and their allies in the Senate to promote their agendas. If it takes a supermajority to pass legislation, then a majority of the senators can tell their constituents they voted against the special interests, but the special interests still win. On a structural level, it’s an ideal mechanism for a small minority with loads of money and influence to quietly game the democratic system. And more concretely, a recent study from found a number of instances in which Mitch McConnell used the silent filibuster to kill legislation and then received big cash infusions to his campaign account from interests that opposed the legislation within a few days of the filibuster.

(Btw, title reference to this rippin’ punk classic.)

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