Friday, November 22, 2013

Reining In the Power of the Filibuster

Today is Friday, November 22, 2013.

A filibuster is a type of parliamentary procedure where one person or a group of people try to delay or prevent a vote by means of unlimited debate.  The word comes from the Spanish term  filibustero, which originally came from the Dutch word vrijbuiter, meaning "privateer, pirate, or robber.  It was first used in its current legislative meaning in 1853.  It's interesting that the term originally meant "pirate or robber" because a filibuster essentially takes over the proceedings much like pirates taking over a ship, and it robs the people of the opportunity to have a proposal voted on.  Whether it is successful or not, a filibuster ends up wasting valuable time.

In U.S. federal government, the filibuster is currently used only used in the United States Senate, where the minority party has more rights than in any other legislative body in the world.  The filibuster was used in the House of Representatives only until 1942, when a permanent rule was created that limited the duration of debate. It is thought that the reason the House acted to curb the filibuster much sooner than the Senate is that the House of Representatives has grown so much larger than the Senate.  (The House has 435 seats with a varying number of representatives for each state, according to population, whereas the Senate has only 100 seats, exactly two seats for each state.) 

Currently, only thirteen states allow filibustering in their state legislatures.  Those states are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine (theoretically), Nebraska, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.  It must be noted that most of these are thought of as "red states," where conservatives are in the majority.

The notion of the filibuster was famously romanticized in popular culture by the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which a simple country politician uses it to postpone a vote that has been rigged by corrupt politicians.

On November 21, 2013, a rule was finally created that limited the filibuster in the Senate, as well, and given the fact that filibusters have been used extensively during the first and second Obama administrations, many people feel that it is high time the Senate followed the House of Representatives' example.  

Until the rule-change, most major legislation needed to have a 60% majority (called a supermajority, to distinguish it from a simple majority of anything over 50%) in order to pass, because according to the Senate rules, the only way a filibuster could be ended was if "three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn," (in other words 60 out of 100 senators) were present to invoke "cloture," or a quick end to the debate. 

The vote to change the filibuster is known as the "nuclear option" by its opponents and the "constitutional option" by its proponents.  The Senate voted 52-48 for the change, which requires only a simple majority vote to end a filibuster of certain executive and judicial nominees, not including Supreme Court nominees. A three-fifths supermajority is still required to end filibusters on nominees for the Supreme Court. 

Why did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid call for this vote?  If you look at the figures in today's graphic, you realize that the filibuster was used specifically to delay or abort presidential nominees an inordinate number of times since President Obama took office.  Reid's immediate concern was getting three of President Obama's nominations for U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit approved.  

The change means that if president's party holds a majority in the Senate, he or she is virtually assured of having nominations approved without obstruction.  If minority parties want to bring up objections to a nominee, they will have to bring them up fairly in debate, rather than rely on a filibuster to block the nomination.  What if the president's party is in the minority?  Simple: he can just veto any bill that comes across his desk. The Republicans are now saying that the voters can change the Senate majority from Democrat to Republican in the 2014 mid-term elections, but as I just noted, even if this happened, all President Obama would have to do is veto bills that were passed by a Republican majority. 

If the Republicans had not used the filibuster to excess in the last few years, I suspect that the Democrats would have simply considered it a "necessary evil" to maintain a system of checks and balances, but the obstructionist tactics of the opposition party have worn everyone's nerves pretty thin, and the current Congress has the lowest approval rating ever, at only 9% approval, among the American people. 

Many conservatives have been concerned that there are too many "activist" (read: liberal) judges are sitting in our courts.  The fact is that the federal judiciary is evenly balanced at the moment, with 390 GOP-appointed judges and 391 Democratic-appointed ones.  However, there are 93 vacancies, and since the Republicans finally made the Democrats angry enough to invoke the "nuclear option," they have done themselves out of a chance to keep that figure fairly evenly balanced.  

Those who are sick and tired of obstructionist tactics in Congress are heaving a giant sigh of relief right now that at least some things will not trigger a filibuster.  Only time will tell how the vote to limit the filibuster will affect Congress in the future, or whether the change will make it easier for some future dictator to take over the country.   :-/

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