Communications workers, Sen. Harkin lead fight for filibuster reform


WASHINGTON (PAI) – Saying senatorial filibusters rob workers of legislation they want and need, the Communications Workers are leading a new coalition, unveiled Dec. 15, behind Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s filibuster reform plan.

And whether they succeed may be up to Vice President Joe Biden, when the new and more-Republican – but still Democratic-run – Senate first meets in January.

The coalition, which includes CWA, other unions, the Alliance for Justice, the Leadership Coalition on Civil and Human Rights, and Common Cause, backs Harkin’s plan to continue to allow “extended debate” in the Senate – but to remove the possibility that endless filibusters, or even the threat of them, bring everything to a halt.

There have been 132 filibusters so far this year, Common Cause President Bob Edgar said. All of them have been launched and sustained by the Senate’s 40-plus Republicans, sometimes with the help of an occasional Democrat. Senators need only 41 votes in the 100-person Senate to keep filibusters going.

But the filibuster problem is a bipartisan one, speakers said: Senate Democrats used it during the GOP Bush administration when they were in the minority, too.

In this Congress, Harkin and the other speakers said filibusters stalled or killed items ranging from collective bargaining rights for public safety workers to 38 Obama administration judicial nominees to extended jobless benefits. One other, which CWA President Larry Cohen indirectly cited: The Employee Free Choice Act. And the GOP also used the filibuster as leverage to get Obama to yield on tax cuts for the rich.

“CWA’s excited about this broad coalition and the broad array of civil rights and environmental groups that have joined it,” said Cohen, who has made filibuster reform a top cause for his union and its members.

“What holds this all together is the sense our democracy is broken and working families don’t see any path to the social change we voted for in 2008,” he added. “We won’t have democracy in this country without democracy in the workplace,” he declared.

The Employee Free Choice Act, labor’s top specific legislative cause, fell victim to an expensive orchestrated business campaign that backed a very-willing Senate GOP into a completely uncompromising plan to filibuster it – and even to filibuster the notion of starting debate on it.

The bill would help level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining, restoring some of the workplace democracy Cohen cited. It would legalize validated majority signup of union recognition cards as a way to win a workplace. It would also increase fines for breaking labor laws, mandate first-contract arbitration if the two sides can’t agree within 120 days, and make it easier to get court orders against flagrant labor law-breakers.

Faced with the GOP filibuster plan, Harkin, the Labor Committee chairman, tried for months in 2009 to find a compromise that could garner 60 votes, including a Republican or two, as necessary. He eventually had to give up, before being sidetracked by President Obama’s massive health care legislation.

Now, Harkin again wants to launch a push, which he first proposed 25 years ago, to make maintaining filibusters harder and to limit their time. His plan, first of all, would require senators to actually debate, as they did in decades past.

The first attempt to end a filibuster would still need 60 votes. If it fails, sponsors could try again three days later, but would need only 57. If that still fails, they could try again in another three days, but need only 54. The final attempt, after three more days, would need only a simple majority of 51.

That would limit the time for filibusters while still encouraging robust debate on major issues, he said – and not the current “disgraceful display” in the Senate.

Right now, a filibuster is the equivalent to “shutting off the electricity, turning off the mike, forbidding anyone to say anything and telling them to sit down,” Harkin said.

Biden, briefly part of the behind-the-scenes talks over the Employee Free Choice Act, may hold the key to whether CWA, its partners, and Harkin succeed. That’s because the filibuster is in the Senate rules, and senators vote on the rules at the start of every new Congress. Since 1975, the rules have carried over from one Congress to next, changeable only by a two-thirds vote – an impossibility in a Senate that will be 53-47 Democratic next year.

But in 1975, then-Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., said the Senate’s rules didn’t carry over and needed only a simple majority of 51 for change. The vice president is constitutionally the Senate’s presiding officer, even if he’s rarely there. Byrd’s ruling threw the Senate into temporary chaos, Harkin said.

Harkin said Biden could rule the same way. “That’s what we’re working on right now,” he added. Otherwise, the Senate will be mired, as Harkin said Sen. James DeMint, R- S.C., wants, in, as DeMint put it, “total gridlock.”

Photo: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, (D-IA), during a  hearing on the human health impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, June 15. Evan Vucci/AP




Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.