On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Democrats, fed up with endless Republican obstructionism, voted to end filibusters on nearly all presidential nominees. The filibuster rule, as used in recent years, permits the minority party to block any legislation or appointments, for any reason, or no reason at all, by insisting on a supermajority of 61 votes to end debate and move to a vote.
It is interesting to note that, according to Wikipedia, the English term “filibuster” is derived from the Spanish “filibustero,” itself deriving originally from the Dutch “vrijbuiter,” meaning “privateer, pirate, robber” (also the root of English “freebooter”). The term in its legislative sense was first used by Mississippi Rep. Albert G. Brown in 1853.
The last straw for Democrats came this week, when Republicans refused to fill the bench in the important D.C. federal appeals court. The court has only eight of its statutory 11 justices, but, according to Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, Obama’s nominees were rejected on no grounds at all other than that they were Obama appointees.
Hundreds of federal courts lack judges, and federal departments lack permanent leadership, because Republicans have been routinely filibustering Obama’s nominees in their effort to reject any authority arising from the fact that the president won the last election, and the one before that. Even if regulatory laws enforcing corporate and public responsibility are passed – which is difficult if not impossible given Republican control of the House – refusing to confirm leadership for agencies is just another way for a minority to nullify a law already enacted.
The vote to restrict the filibuster was a good step, even long overdue, to some younger senators like Ben Cardin of Maryland. However the restriction does nothing to fix the legislative logjam, where longstanding issues with majority support have died from the filibuster: immigration reform, the Employee Free Choice Act, jobs bills, infrastructure improvements, education funding, the Violence Against Women act, and many other progressive reforms. And how many appointments can now get through is in doubt since there are other rules that enable extending debate in addition to the filibuster.
As was demonstrated in the shutdown fiasco, legislative progress in the House is all but doomed by Republican opposition. With this new filibuster reform, the president can at least get a full team in place so that he and federal agencies can move forward with executive action, when possible, when Republicans block his agenda in Congress. An example of such action was this week’s National Labor Relations Board ruling citing Walmart for massively violating workers’ rights by punishing employees who participate in protests and grievances over wages and working conditions. If Obama and Reid had not forced approval of the appointments to the NLRB last summer in an earlier showdown, the NLRB citation could not have happened.
“That’s what Republicans fear,” says the New York Times, predicting an even harsher partisan atmosphere in the U.S. Senate in the coming period. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky piously opined, “This is nothing more than a power grab in order to try to advance the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda.”
However Stewart Acuff, former AFL-CIO organizing director, has a different spin on his blog, saying, “… this is only a first step. The Senate needs to end all filibusters.”
The one historical defense of the filibuster, and requiring a supermajority to end it, that makes some sense is that there are times when passing very contentious or divisive legislation needs a decisive majority to be truly enforceable and credible. Just think about a union strike vote over a controversial company contract offer that benefits some, but hurts others. A 51 percent strike vote does not portend a very good outcome in a tough conflict.
But there are other times, such as now, when the plutocrat minority threatens to keep us in permanent depression and servitude, or such as leading up to the Civil War when the slave-owner minority sought to nullify federal government. These are times when an aroused democracy must say yes to majority rule on vital questions that elections have repeatedly decided.
On a deeper level, it is time to ask why democratic reform of our institutions is something to fear. Certainly we have evolved a long way from the dawn of our nation, when the founders, mostly men of privilege, including slaveholders, felt that direct participation of the people, and trust in them as the source of authority, was dangerous. The 99 percent of today have knowledge and wisdom far surpassing the elites of any age, including this one.
Image: From Democracy Means Fair Employment Practices Pamphlet No. 198, CIO Education Department, October 1951. Tobias Higbie CC 2.0