15 July 2013

Reforming the Senate: IT IS TIME

I have made clear my belief that the non-democratic rules of the Senate are so serious an impediment to the functioning of our national government that whatever considerations may militate in favor of retaining some kinds of supermajorities, they are greatly outweighed by the need to prevent the Minority from having the power to completely obstruct all governance.

Thus, the story in the NYT today about filibuster reform is a must-read. I quote the opening: 

It was October 2011, and Senate Republicans were trying to interfere with a bill addressing China’s currency by offering a series of amendments that had little to do with China or monetary policy, a favorite tactic of their leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

But Democrats surprised Mr. McConnell by using a parliamentary maneuver that quashed the amendments. The process went like this: Harry Reid, the majority leader, asked for a ruling from the Senate’s parliamentarian about whether the amendments were in order. The parliamentarian ruled that they were.

Mr. Reid then moved to overrule the parliamentarian. And he did so with a simple majority vote of 51 to 48.

That seemingly mundane twist of the Senate’s intricate rules gave Democrats the precedent that they believe they need to change how the filibuster can be used, a move that has infuriated Republicans.

Of course they're infuriated. They want to exercise minoritarian obstructionism. But they shouldn't be allowed to. The Senate is profoundly flawed already, by the working out of the now obviously seriously detrimental Connecticut Compromise (during the original Constitutional Convention), whereby states like North Dakota that have fewer people than one of California's cities' suburbs have 2 senators while the whole of the largest state in the union... fully 13% of the nation's population, also has just two. This system makes the Senate intrinsically undemocratic. But adding the arcane, obstruction-enabling, and deeply undemocratic supermajority rules on top of that makes the Senate, despite its august trappings, a disgrace. It is not an exaggeration to say that America is a not-quite republic, with a not-quite constitutional system responsive to its people. And the lack of even plausibly democratic governing rules for our upper house is one of the reasons this is the case.

This debate is over a relatively narrow rules change... affecting only presidential appointments other than judges. I advocate eliminating the filibuster ENTIRELY, and now. Simple majority to pass anything not actually specified in the Constitution, simple majority to end debate and force votes, any Senator can introduce bills or measures, and none can place "holds." IT IS TIME. By the same procedure as the rule change under discussion, a simple majority vote could make all of these changes. And I believe once they were made, and the greater fairness that results came to be a subject of commentary and discussion, the Republicans would be unable to either change them back or introduce other non-democratic rules to replace them in the future.

Of course at some point in the future these changes could BENEFIT the Rightists. But that isn't a good enough reason not to make a change NOW towards greater democracy. Progressive people believe in democracy as a matter of principle, and calculating whether a particular undemocratic maneuver or mechanism might conceivably hurt you politically in some unspecified future is not an acceptable counterargument to reform.  

UPDATE: (Comment on Republican leadership integrity, as in zero):
I have a simple, and I think undeniably true, retort to those who would say that if Democrats change Senate rules with a simple majority vote, the Republicans will change the rules to their own advantage when next they have a majority. Consider the trustworthiness of Republican leadership and its representations, as demonstrated by Mitch McConnell's recent actions. Zip. So, no matter what they say, no matter what Democrats now do, they will do that anyway. So Democrats should seize the opportunity now to change the rules, and not just for appointments... and use the ability to pass more legislation to actually benefit the country, which will have the effect of making it a little easier to hold on to a majority in the Senate in 2016 and beyond. 

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