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Nuclear Option

November 29, 2012 - John Stack
One of the most memorable scenes in cinema is Jimmy Stewart in ‘Mr Smith goes to Washington’. In it, Stewart is shown filibustering a motion to get him expelled. Stewart goes on for almost 24 hours until the corrupt senators admit to their malfeasance. What Stewart did (as Jeffery Smith) was attributed to him trying to stop incredible graft and corruption and refusing to yield (the floor). Well…that’s Hollywood. Nowadays, anyone can ‘filibuster’ and all it takes is a single member to signify he is going to filibuster some rule or law. When this happens, the member could technically talk the law to death, with their being 60 votes needed to bring debate on the floor to stop. Rarely, if ever, does anyone talk out the law. Basically, just by threatening a filibuster, debate is moved on to some other item on the agenda. Often, this squashes bills that would easily pass (a simple majority) . The filibuster recently has been a favorite weapon of the minority party to wield, in order for laws they don’t agree with to never even make it to a vote. Often, a senator doesn’t even want to vote. He or she may feel they would have to vote for the law because that is what the constituents actually want, but by joining a filibuster, they never have to take an official stance on a bill, giving them plenty of hiding space on topics that might hurt their standing with the power players that keep them in office.

The filibuster through the first 150 years of which it was used, was a mechanism for the minority to block passage of laws they believed were truly detrimental to the country, and was a way to stop rampant ‘majority rule’. It was only invoked in very extreme cases. Now, as Senator Reid said ‘Basically, everything needs 60 votes’. Anything the minority party doesn’t like, they ether invoke cloture (a procedure that is needed to stop debate on a bill) or they threaten cloture.

The filibuster has been a strong weapon for the minority party since 2007. Through the minority during W’s tenure, up through Obama’s first term, the GOP has wielded the filibuster like no one envisioned. Why? Because they are so sure everything that the Democrats have attempted is so bad? From Jobs Bills to judgeships to department heads? No..Its to keep power. It’s no secret that that most members of congress are there to keep their own job, not to do the people’s bidding. The minority leader, Mitch McConnel said so much in October 2010 “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Not to create jobs, not to help America, not to enrich the lives of Americans. And, that is the tact they continue to use – obstruct anything they can. Then, as their plan went, they would obstruct all they could, then blame Obama and the Democrats that nothing got done. As Eric Lotke noted “It’s like mugging the postman and then complaining that the mail isn't delivered on time."

It seems like Congress has been more about posturing than getting anything done. I mean, really, what was the point of the House voting to repeal Obamacare THIRTY FIVE times? Any chance of believing they were doing the people’s business vanished long ago. Mitch McConnell, in possibly the most disingenuous speech ever said “The American people want less partisanship in this town, but everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse." Can anyone really imagine the bitterness or gridlock to get WORSE?Its like saying someone can get more dead, more pregnant or water can get more wet. You can’t threaten anymore when you are already at the precipice.

Harry Reid has proposed a number of reforms to filibustering. Among them is a 51% vote to end debate. Normally that takes a 2/3 majority in the Senate to change rules…except on Jan 1 and March of of a new session. Then it only takes a 51% vote. That is the nuclear option, as Reid has the votes to make the change on Jan 1. One proposal is to actually make the person calling for filibuster to stand and talk for hours on end. Of course O’Connell, who has fundamentally changed how cloture is used in the senate, has opposed this claiming this would be a “"fundamental change to the way the Senate operates."


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