Friday, February 12, 2010

Filibuster Update Update

So remember that filibuster we were talking about yesterday? Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) had a look, didn't like what they saw, and are now going to try to kill the filibuster with fire.

It is unfortunate, really, but considering what the filibuster is, and how many chances the Republicans were given to negotiate in good faith, it's inevitable. The general rule of Congress is that if you utterly break Congress with a particular parliamentary maneuver, don't be surprised when that maneuver suddenly goes away. This is not a new thing.

*There used to be a practice called the disappearing quorum in the House; the Senate still has one. In this maneuver, a Congressman can refuse to vote even though they're on the floor. With enough members refusing to vote, they could dip the voting population below half, thus making there not be a quorum, and thus preventing anything from getting done, as you need a quorum. It was used routinely in the House, gumming up business until 1890, when then-Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine simply counted all on the floor as present whether they had voted or not. A present member of Congress being counted as present? Shock! Outrage! (Just for reference, Reed had defended the disappearing quorum when he was the one that got to use it, so...)

*The Senate feared a different problem: people just wouldn't show up, breaking quorum that way. They took care of that early, in 1798, by making attendance mandatory. Good call. Attendance was fairly strongly encouraged in 1988when Bob Packwood of Oregon barricaded himself in his office and had to be carried to the floor by five members of the Capitol Police. He made them, as he "refused to walk into the chamber on his own two feet". Steve Symms of Idaho was to suffer the same fate, but he managed to outrun the cops.

*There was a short-lived rule called the Twenty-One-Day Rule in the House, enacted in 1949. It was an attempt to do an end-run around racial conservatives in positions of power that allowed any bill to come to the floor that had not been put on the schedule within three weeks. The racial conservatives had been blocking civil rights bills by simply not placing them on the docket; you can't pass a bill that nobody's scheduled time to debate. The rule didn't prove popular; many of the original supporters, including then-Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, eventually realized what kind of naked power grab they were trying to pull, reversed themselves, and repealed the rule two years later.

*In 1823, the Senate had become tired of gridlock in nominating and appointing committee members; every single member had to be voted on, and partisanship was pretty bad back then. So this gridlock had to go away; it was agreed to simply have the presiding officer appoint everyone himself. Everyone thought this was going to be the President pro tempore, who would just rubber-stamp the will of the majority. Then in 1825 John C. Calhoun of South Carolina became Vice President, who as you might know is the real presiding officer of the Senate when he shows up (which these days is pretty much never). And Calhoun had his own ideas as to how those committees should look. The Senate knew exactly what it was in for. And boy did they get it. And boy did they move to fix it. The rule was re-changed within weeks to let the Senate overrule the presiding officer.

*Woodrow Wilson had to suffer a filibuster problem too, but in his day there was no real way to make the filibuster stop. This was bad. He was trying to fight World War 1, and his war bills were getting tied up for as much as a month at a time. Per bill. Wilson demanded- and got- a cloture rule, saying the "Senate of the United States is the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action. A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible." Sound familiar? (This is why that previous link doesn't show anything before then- it counts motions and votes on cloture.)

*However, cloture used to require a two-thirds majority. And back then, the Senate only had one legislative "track"- essentially, that means the Senate could only consider one bill at a time. If that bill was stalled on the floor, the Senate came to a screeching halt for however long it took to get that bill resolved. Then-Speaker Robert Byrd got sick of it in 1965, and added a second track. He also reduced the votes needed from 67 to the current 60. However, in the process he also got rid of what you would recognize as the Mr. Smith filibuster: until 1965, a Senator had to actually stand on the floor and talk and talk and talk until his voice gave out, his will gave out, or his bladder gave out. You no longer have to do that. Only one Mr. Smith filibuster has happened since 1965, and it was basically for old times' sake. Alphonse D'Amato of New York conducted a 'gentleman's filibuster' in 1992 to try and save a typewriter factory in upstate New York, timing it to start after dinner so everyone had gotten something to eat first. He lasted 15 hours, 14 minutes, but failed.

Today, a filibuster essentially is indistinguishable from a failed cloture vote. As there is no physical exertion in sustaining one, filibusters are easy. According to Harkin and Shaheen, they're too easy.


Also, I should make a correction: in a previous post, I placed the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate including discouraged workers at 11.2%. That was incorrect; that's the unadjusted rate. Seasonally-adjusted, the figure is 10.3%, down from 10.5% in December. Sorry about that.

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