It’s the filibuster, stupid

By Matt Miller
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012

Here’s my plea to Jim Lehrer: At the first presidential debate in Denver next Wednesday, ask the candidates if they are in favor of restoring majority rule in this country. In other words, ask them if they would urge the Senate to scrap the filibuster — and if not, how do they expect to get anything done?

It’s an ideal debate question for five reasons.

First, it’s not the kind of thing on which the candidates will have prepared snoozy, market-tested talking points. So it might give voters the chance to see Mitt Romney and Barack Obama actually think in public.

Second, unlike jobs, or the future of Medicare, the candidates won’t raise the matter themselves.

Third, it’s not a partisan issue. Since the Senate’s 60-vote requirement to end debate is prone to abuse by both parties, the candidates might even find common ground.

Fourth, a discussion of today’s filibuster mess — along with context that Mr. Lehrer can introduce as moderator — will help millions of voters understand what’s behind a big chunk of Washington’s maddening dysfunction.

Finally — and forgive me for raising my voice here — if we don’t scrap the filibuster, we simply can’t govern this country and meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Mr. Lehrer can’t strike this desperate tone, of course, but surely I can in pleading with him to give the filibuster the centrality it deserves. How many Americans know that we don’t actually have majority rule today in this country? How many schoolchildren are taught that a rule of the Senate lets 41 senators representing as little as 11 percent of the population stop anything from happening?

Once upon a time, the filibuster didn’t matter this much. In 1939, the year Mr. Smith went to Washington in Frank Capra’s iconic film, the filibuster wasn’t used even once. It was easy to cast it as a way for a noble statesman to make a rare stand on a matter of conscience (though the filibuster’s less savory but more frequent mid-20th
century use was for killing civil rights bills). In the old days, moreover, a filibustering senator actually had to hold the floor to make his point.

That was then. In recent years, the Republican minority in the Senate has used the filibuster more than 300 times. The mere threat of a filibuster shuts down or waters down legislation (from health care to bank reform) every day. It’s no exaggeration to say you can’t get anything done in the Senate nowadays without 60 votes — save for the
few things you can shoehorn into special budget “reconciliation” bills that require only a simple majority. And today, the minority can bottle things up quietly without explaining themselves in public, as Jimmy Stewart did.

The result is the tyranny of the minority that the founders warned against. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 75, noted that “every political establishment in which this [supermajority] principal has prevailed, is a history of impotence, perplexity and disorder.” James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 58 that with a supermajority requirement, the “fundamental principle of free government would be reversed.”

To make matters even crazier, Senate rules say that to amend or end the filibuster takes not just 60 votes but 67!

I don’t understand why presidential candidates don’t put a return to majority rule at the heart of their campaigns. Ultimately this means neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney is asking for a mandate to get things done. Whatever happened to “send me a Congress I can work with”? Why isn’t “join me in restoring majority rule so we can meet our challenges” an indispensable cry on the stump?

Since both men know filibuster reform is essential for governance, their silence is revealing. It means they both think they’ll somehow be able to fix this via an “inside game” (good luck). It also means they believe the American public can’t be mobilized to defend the idea of majority rule. Talk about democratically depressing.

Yet what theories of governance do the candidates offer instead? Obama says if he wins perhaps “the fever will have broken” when it comes to GOP intransigence. Romney says he got things done as governor in a Democratic state, so he knows how to make this work.

Sorry, gentlemen, but, as the cliche runs, hope isn’t a plan.

In the Senate, neither party has been willing to give up the power they might crave if they’re in the minority. Tom Harkin, to his credit, has tried a few times since 1995 to end the madness, but to no avail. The No Labels group has smartly called for a filibuster fix as part of a broader agenda to “Make Congress Work.” Meanwhile, a
revitalized Common Cause has filed suit to have the filibuster ruled unconstitutional.

But none of this is breaking through. That’s where Mr. Lehrer comes in. One question on this in the debates — and the answers it calls forth from Obama and Romney — could spark an ocean of coverage and commentary, and ignite a debate that leads the Senate to revise its rules no matter who wins.

Never could one moderator do so much via so little.

Please, Jim — for all of us — pop the question.