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How to Not Fix the Filibuster

11:53 am in Uncategorized by David Swanson

Leaving the 41-senator filibuster in place but requiring that they run their mouths (and some of us have to listen) is not exactly the kind of Change most of us Hope for.  Nor is it supported by the Constitution, any other law, any treaty, any rule necessary to the functioning of our government, anything or anyone we just voted for, or any public opinion poll.  The proper thing to do with the filibuster is to eliminate it, which 51 senators can do at the start of the session if they see fit. I know you’ve been told they can’t, but keep reading.

A view from underneath the dome

Dome of the US Capitol Building

Trying to squeeze any sort of peace on earth out of our government in Washington has been a steep uphill climb for years. For the most part we no longer have representatives in Congress, because of the corruption of money, the weakness of the media, and the strength of parties. There are not 535 opinions on Capitol Hill on truly important matters, but 2. Our supposed representatives work for their party leaders, not for us. One of the two parties sometimes claims to want to work for us.

When the Democrats were in the minority and out of the White House, they told us they wanted to work for us but needed to be in the majority. So, in 2006, we put them there. Then they told us that they really wished they could work for us but they needed bigger majorities and the White House. So, in 2008, we gave them those things, and largely deprived them of two key excuses for inaction. We took away the veto excuse and came very close to taking away the filibuster excuse, and — in fact — the filibuster excuse could be taken away completely if the Democrats didn’t want to keep it around.  In 2009 they chose to keep it, and again in 2011.

This is not to say that either excuse was ever sensible. The two most important things the 110th Congress refused to do (ceasing to fund illegal wars, and impeaching war criminals) did not require passing legislation, so filibusters and vetoes were not relevant. But the Democrats in Congress, and the Republicans, and the media, and the White House all pretended that wars could only be ended by legislation, so the excuses for not passing legislation loomed large. The veto excuse vanished on January 20, 2009. The filibuster excuse could have been gone by January 6, 2009, if Senator Harry Reid had wanted it gone, or again in January 2011.  It could also be gone by January 2013 if the Democrats actually want to not have the Republicans to blame for their failures.

The filibuster excuse works like this. Any 41 senators can vote No on “cloture”, that is on bringing a bill to a vote, and that bill will never come to a vote, and anything the House of Representatives has done won’t matter. Any of the other 59 senators, the 435 House members, the president, the vice president, television pundits, and newspaper reporters can blame the threat of filibuster for anything they fail to do.

Now, the Senate itself is and always has been and was intended to be an anti-democratic institution. It serves no purpose that is not or could not be more democratically accomplished by the House alone (were the House not gerrymandered and bought and paid for). The Senate should simply be eliminated by Constitutional Amendment. But the filibuster is the most anti-democratic tool of the Senate, and can be eliminated without touching the Constitution, which does not mention it. If you take 41 senators from the 21 smallest states, you can block any legislation with a group of multi-millionaires elected by 11.2 percent of the American public. That fact is a national disgrace that should be remedied as quickly as possible.  And not by making the culprits run their mouths on television. “Nooooo! Don’t throw us in that briar patch!”

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6:40 am in Uncategorized by David Swanson

There’s a simple reason why the Democrats in Washington, D.C., can’t end the wars or shrink the military or close Guantanamo or legalize union organizing or create a real health coverage system or repeal NAFTA or tax carbon or (fill in the blank).

But the simple reason keeps changing.

In 2005 and 2006 it was that they were in a minority in the House and Senate.

In 2007 and 2008 it was that they lacked the White House.

In 2009 and 2010 it was the filibuster.

In 2011 and 2012 it will be that they are a minority in the House.

The 2005-2006 reason was credible, even if Republicans seem to have no trouble passing tax bills in the minority.

The 2007-2010 reasons were not credible. Without passing a single bill, Congress could have stopped funding wars and/or impeached the top war criminals. And the filibuster was kept around by choice. It could have been eliminated in January 2009, or the credible threat to eliminate it in 2011 could have resulted in its elimination or reform at any time during the past two years, as has been done before.

Throwing out the filibuster rule this coming January (next week) wouldn’t eliminate the Republican majority in the House. A credible reason for not passing decent bills will have been restored just in time. But some of our courts might have judges confirmed to sit at them for a change. And horrible House legislation would not have to be made even worse to get it through the Senate — well, not as much worse anyway. And if, at some point in the future, a majority of senators — from whatever party or combination of parties — is willing to work with the House to pass decent laws, it would be able to do so.

The filibuster rule does not protect minority rights. The filibuster rule creates minority rule. In a democratic republic, every individual should have protected rights (remember when Americans had those?), but no minority should have the right to rule, certainly not 41 wealthy old white men elected in states containing 11 percent of the U.S. population.

The filibuster has roots in opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I. There’s no reason a filibuster can’t be used to block an injustice. When the whole Senate is bought and sold through corrupt elections, party control, corporate media, and lobbyist pressure, there is no reason to suppose that a majority of senators represents majority opinion in the country. When Wyoming has as many senators as California, talk of majority representation in the Senate is outlandish to begin with. But the filibuster rule makes these problems worse. We are likely to always be better off on the whole with the rule of 51 senators than with the rule of 41.

Partial reforms, like ending senators’ power to place “secret holds” on bills or removing delays in the process of confirming nominees, are all good. Such reforms limit the power of senators to block the work of the House and the will of the majority of the Senate. But the most needed reform is the elimination of the filibuster rule, a change from requiring three-fifths of senators to move a bill to a vote to requiring a simple majority. Such a change would not prevent Senator Bernie Sanders from making a long speech, as he did recently — an act widely mislabeled a “filibuster” despite the fact that he was not blocking any legislation. Such a change would simply end the power of 41 senators to block bills or nominations. A reform requiring any number between 41 and 51 would be an improvement as well.

Making the filibuster “real,” that is, requiring that senators stand and speak to maintain a filibuster, is much less of a real reform. It might break some filibusters; it might not. It would certainly give a platform to a minority of senators to mouth off while the corporate media compares them to Jimmy Stewart and describes their late-night heroics as they prevent any other senate business from occurring.

There were no filibusters until the late 1830s. The Senate originally functioned under the same rule the House still functions under, requiring a simple majority to move a bill to a vote. Until we can eliminate the Senate, we should eliminate rules that have made it worse. You may have less than a week to call your senators and say: About the filibuster: end it, don’t mend it.

Senator Coburn Will Filibuster War Bill Unless Paid For

11:25 am in Government, Legislature, Military, Republican Party by David Swanson

Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, is committed to opposing a supplemental spending bill that includes $33.5 billion to escalate war in Afghanistan, unless the funds to pay for it are found.

On May 10th Senator Coburn wrote to his colleagues asking for their support for an amendment that would offset the new spending in this bill with cuts elsewhere. I spoke on Monday with Senator Coburn’s communications director John Hart who assured me that Coburn intends to oppose the supplemental spending bill unless such an amendment is passed.

Hart said that Senator Coburn’s position is that our nation is spending way beyond our means, that Congress has been violating PAYGO rules frequently (statutory rules requiring that all spending be paid for with new revenue or offsetting cuts). Hart said that Senator Coburn has frequently put holds on bills and believes this is justified in the current instance, regardless of whether he’s been completely consistent in the past. The PAYGO statute makes an exception for supplemental war spending, but — as Coburn points out — this spending blatently violates the spirit of PAYGO.

Coburn, Hart said, wants to give the Democrats a chance to pay for the war, something that some leading Democrats have said in the past year that they want to do. Senator Carl Levin and House Appropriations Chairman David Obey said six months ago that they would not pass any more war funding without creating a "war tax" to pay for it; they proposed legislation to do just that. Chairman Obey and President Obama are also among those who have previously vowed not to use "emergency" supplemental spending bills anymore.

Hart mentioned "a lot of waste in the Department of Defense" as a place to look for offsets, itself a remarkable position to hear a Republican senator promoting. More remarkable will be seeing a Republican filibuster of a bill that includes war funding, even if it is funding to escalate, rather than to maintain, a war, and even if the opposition is based purely on financial policy. Most members of Congress who speak against wars, usually Democrats, tend to fund the wars they "oppose" on the grounds that not to do so is to "oppose the troops." Republicans in the House dismissed this criticism last June when they all voted against the previous war supplemental. Coburn dismissed it as well in his May 10th letter, printed in full below:

May 10, 2010

Dear Colleague,

I appreciate your support for the effort to pay for the $18 billion cost of H.R. 4851, the Continuing Extension Act of 2010 approved by the Senate earlier this month. I am once again asking for your support to pay for the cost of legislation expected to be considered by Congress in the coming weeks.

The Senate is expected to consider yet another "emergency" spending bill in the coming weeks. The bill could cost as much as $70 billion and will contain the annual supplemental war appropriations as well as tens of billions of dollars for a variety of other unrelated purposes, none of which will be paid for with reductions in other federal spending. Without question, we must fully meet the needs of our military men and women with the equipment and supplies they need to win and return home. But we must do so responsibly, by offsetting the full cost of the war efforts with cuts to lower-priority federal spending.

As you know, on February 12, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act (PAYGO). In the weeks following its enactment, the Senate has repeatedly ignored the spirit of PAYGO by borrowing $173 billion to cover the costs of new spending rather than paying for it by cutting lower priority spending. Just over a year ago, the national debt was $10.6 trillion. Today, it is $12.9 trillion, and every American owes more than $41,000.

With the federal government borrowing 43 cents for every dollar we spend, our spending is on an unsustainable course. I will, therefore, do everything I can to ensure Congress pays for the annual supplemental spending bill and plan to offer an amendment to offset the full amount of the legislation. I am open to all offset suggestions and would appreciate your support when the pay for amendment is put before the Senate for a vote.

Time and time again, Congress waits until the last minute to consider important legislation and then declares the billions of dollars in costs as “emergency” as a way to avoid making the tough decisions required to pay for the price tag. Congress can continue to borrow billions of dollars by declaring a bill an emergency to avoid paying for it today, but eventually the cost must be paid. Our nation’s $12.9 trillion debt is endangering our financial recovery, the future of our children and grandchildren who will be left paying for the bills we are incurring today, our national security, and the very freedoms of men and women in uniform are fighting to protect and preserve. That is why the real “emergency spending” is this type of irresponsible spending that is creating a true emergency for the future of our nation.

Again, I appreciate your support in the past and I hope I can count on you again as I do whatever I can to help restore fiscal discipline in Washington by forcing Congress to pay for the costs of all new spending.

Sincere Regards,
Tom A Coburn, M.D.
U.S. Senator