“A graveyard for good ideas”

    Warning: This is not a sexy story. Legislative procedure is never sexy.But it’s worth noting what didn’t happen this week in the scerlotic U.S. Senate. The leaders in the so-called “world’s greatest deliberative body” – though I prefer to call it Dysfunction Junction – had a golden opportunity to cure their notorious institutional paralysis, but instead they basically said this: Nah.Even with their feet stuck in quicksand, they refused to fight their way out. Given the chance to reform the Senate’s filibuster rules, and thereby end the gridlock that has increasingly plagued the Senate for several decades, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell announced yesterday that they had reached a gentlemen’s agreement to do virtually nothing. Which means that minority tyranny will continue, that a supermajority of 60 senators will still be required, as a matter of routine, to break filibusters and get stuff enacted.Reid and McConnell insisted that they had forged a compromise. It’s a voluntary deal. They’ll supposedly “exercise restraint” in tying up the chamber’s business. But in practice, the deal is useless, because the rank and file isn’t bound to it. Freshman Utah Republican Mike Lee, one of the tea-party guys, promptly declared yesterday that he intends to filibuster the crucial Senate bill to raise the national debt ceiling.This winter, a number of ideas were being kicked around to curb the filibuster (the word is derived from vrijbuiter, which old Dutch for “looter”), to at least make the tactic more difficult to sustain. Reform was long overdue. Until the 1960s, the Senate averaged one filibuster a year; during the ‘60s, it averaged 4.6 a year; during the ‘70s, it averaged 11.2 a year. Rampant exploitation of the rule became de rigueur during the ‘90s, when ideological fervor truly took hold. That decade saw an average of 36 filibusters a year – although, in retrospect, that stat is a pittance. Since 2007 the minority Republicans have used the tactic on an unprecedented scale  – 70 per year – to grind the process to a halt; last December, the Senate last month couldn’t even pass the annual budget. If the famed French social critic Alexis de Tocqueville was alive today, he would knowingly nod. Back in 1832, while observing the Senate in action, he praised the quality of its members, but warned in his writings that “a minority of the nation dominating the Senate could completely paralyze the will of the majority…and that is contrary to the spirit of constitutional government.”The handful of senators who were pushing filibuster reform would surely agree with that. They had suggested a number of ideas – lowering the number of senators required to break a filibuster, bringing it steadily down from the current 60 during the first eight days of paralysis; requiring the obstructionists to actually stand there on camera and actually conduct the filibuster, rather than paralyzing the chamber by merely threatening to filibuster; requiring that a fixed number of filibustering senators hold the floor on day one, and hike the required number for days two, three, and beyond; requiring that the tactic be used only when a bill is up for final passage, as opposed to its use on any or all amendments.None of those reforms will happen, not just because the Republicans predictably said no, but because a sizable share of Democrats also prefer the status quo. After all, they could be in the minority some day (perhaps as soon as 2013), and they might want to avail themselves of the same paralysis tactic – partisan payback, giving the GOP a taste of its own bitter medicine. What a far cry from the Senate of 1832, when de Tocqueville was lauding the members for their “lofty thoughts” and “generous instincts.” (The senators of 1832 had yet to employ the filibuster.)Lofty thoughts are a luxury today, with the 24/7 news cycle and the ideological discipline. The routine obstruction of Senate business via filibuster has become an American tradition, like steroids and Twitter. Far be it for the Senate to address its own inertia. Foiled reformer Tom Udall, the freshman New Mexico senator, said the other day that the Senate is merely “a graveyard for good ideas,” which strikes me as an apt description – given the leaden tread of life in Dysfunction Junction.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal