Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Nuclear Option

Last Monday, after reading Paul Krugman's NY Times column, I felt my blood pressure rise. His point was that the US Senate, and consequently the government as a whole, had become dysfunctional because of a strange and harmful Senate rule:

After all, Democrats won big last year, running on a platform that put health reform front and center. In any other advanced democracy this would have given them the mandate and the ability to make major changes. But the need for 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and end a filibuster — a requirement that appears nowhere in the Constitution, but is simply a self-imposed rule — turned what should have been a straightforward piece of legislating into a nail-biter. And it gave a handful of wavering senators extraordinary power to shape the bill.

The political scientist Barbara Sinclair has done the math. In the 1960s, she finds, “extended-debate-related problems” — threatened or actual filibusters — affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980s, that had risen to 27 percent. But after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006 and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent.
[Emphasis added]

I had thought about posting on Mr. Krugman's column, but then I read The Impolitic and My DD, and I realized that Libby Spencer and Charles Lemos did a much better job than I could have. I recommend both.

Now the reason I'm bringing up the Krugman column a week later is that during my weekly jaunt to Watching America, I found an op-ed piece in Germany's Die Weld which dealt with the same issue just a few days after Krugman's column appeared. After noting the pending passage of the Senate's idea of health care reform, the author (obviously horrified by the whole nasty proceeding in the Senate) had this to say:

It amounts to 40 Republican senators holding the world’s supposedly most noble deliberative body hostage, and they are as proud of their obstructionist politics as though they were a bunch of nasty kids.

Anyone who thinks that description is exaggerated, or perhaps even (perish the thought) partisan, should read the new study published by political scientist Barbara Sinclair on the use of the filibuster during the last 50 years. This parliamentary procedure, not even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, was invoked in only eight percent of major Senate votes during the 1960s. In the 1980s, the rate climbed to 27 percent, edging perilously close to abuse.

But when the Republicans lost their Senate majority in 2006, the rate skyrocketed to 70 percent. It was invoked 139 times in 2008 alone. “We have crossed the mark of over 100 filibusters and acts of procedural obstruction in less than one year,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, said bitterly. “Never since the founding of the Republic, not even in the bitter sentiments preceding the American Civil War, was such a thing ever seen in this body.”
[Emphasis added]

That there are echoes of Krugman's column in another country's press should come as no surprise. He is, after all, a Nobel Laureate in Economics who is published in the NY Times. That said, that an article on US Senate rules appears in another country's press is telling. The exceptional country with an exceptional Constitution is, sadly, not so exceptional in the eyes of the rest of the world.

There are, however, a couple of remedies that might turn things around. For a decade, the Democrats rarely even mentioned a filibuster because the GOP held the threat of changing the-60 vote cloture rule to one requiring only a simple majority. Remember the nuclear option? I think it's time that the Democrats take some calcium pills and do more than threaten. They should just drop that bomb.

Second, although far less likely, this country should take a good, long, hard look at public financing for congressional elections. Yes, we'd probably throw a lot of hard working and big spending lobbyists out of work, but at least we'd have a better shot at having people in Congress more intent on pleasing their constituents than pleasing the big money people at the banks, Wall Street, PHARMA, and their ilk.

I know, I'm naive, but I'm beginning to think I'm not ever going to see real change in my life time (which is growing shorter by the day) unless people of good will start hammering on Congress, and hitting hard, below the belt if necessary.

The new year is just around the corner. Hopefully it will be better than the last ten.

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