Filibustering the Public
The Nation, Nov. 24, 2009
This is not what democracy looks like. When Americans vote, by overwhelming majorities, to place control of the executive and legislative branches in the hands of a party that has promised fundamental change, they are supposed to get that change. They are not supposed to watch as a handful of self-interested and special-interested senators prevent progress by exploiting the arcane rules of the less representative of our two legislative chambers--rules requiring that not a majority but a supermajority be attained in order even to discuss necessary reforms, and that a similar supermajority be in place to thwart a filibuster.
Yet this is where America, a nation often inclined to tell other nations how to practice democracy, finds itself as the debate about healthcare reform reaches its critical stage. We have a president who is prepared to sign legislation to expand access to healthcare while establishing at least some controls against profiteering by insurers. We have a House of Representatives in which a majority has voted for imperfect but real reform. We have a Senate in which a majority is ready to vote for what could be even better reform. Unfortunately, that majority is sidelined as a few wavering senators game the system.
Unless Harry Reid and his colleagues implement majority rule--by abolishing rules that allow two-fifths of the chamber's members (as few as forty-one senators) to prevent passage of that legislation--the character and quality of any "reform" will be dictated by a tiny minority from some of the nation's least populous states.
The Nation has argued for years that the filibuster is antidemocratic. We long ago rejected the notion that rules preventing the majority of senators from implementing the will of the people must be maintained as a bow to tradition. The filibuster is not constitutionally mandated. It was established by rules that have been repeatedly altered over the years. Besides, as Thomas Geoghegan recently noted (see "The Case for Busting the Filibuster," August 31/September 7), the proper reply to the history buffs is, "Yes, well, slavery and segregation are also part of our history, and that's what the filibuster was used to defend. I'm all in favor of history and tradition, but I see no reason to go on cherishing either the filibuster or the Confederate flag."
The healthcare debate highlights everything that's wrong with the filibuster. Polling shows that more than 75 percent of Americans favor a public option, yet it could be eliminated--not to gain majority support in the Senate but to gain supermajority support. That's absurd, and citizens know it. That's why tens of thousands have signed petitions circulated by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Florida Congressman Alan Grayson and Firedoglake demanding alteration of the filibuster rule.
Reid should listen to the outcry. This is about more than healthcare. At stake is the promise of democratic governance and the credibility of Congress. A great lie of politics is that all legislators are "bought" by special-interest donors. In fact, most senators are not bought by insurance-industry contributions. Think of Bernie Sanders and Tom Harkin, who have stood so forthrightly for robust reform, and Jay Rockefeller, who battled another senior Democrat, Max Baucus, on behalf of the public option.
But as long as antidemocratic rules remain, the deliberations will be guided not by Sanders, Harkin or Rockefeller but by the likes of Ben Nelson, who from 2003 to 2008 banked more than $600,000 in insurance-industry donations, and Blanche Lincoln, another collector of industry cash, who is so worried about potential 2010 election challenges that she cannot think straight. Nelson and Lincoln are not holding out for a better deal for their constituents; they are watching out for special interests and perceived political self-interest. And they are not even doing a good job of that, especially Lincoln, who has resisted backing a public option even though polls show a clear majority of her constituents favor this approach. It's even worse with supposedly moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who want to be seen as reformers but won't back real reform.
Compromise with these senators compromises democracy. It warps the will of the people. And it creates bad policy--don't forget that Reid's decision earlier this year to cut funding for job creation in the stimulus bill in order to get three GOP votes limited the government's ability to address rising unemployment.
Reid should take a stand for majority rule. He has decided against the budget reconciliation process, which would allow a simple majority to pass legislation with a robust public option. That's understandable, as this procedure is arduous. But that decision must not become an excuse for making the compromises demanded by a corrupt or self-absorbed minority. No matter where the healthcare debate takes us, Reid and Senate Democrats should commit to getting rid of rules that stifle debate and prevent action, and they should eliminate the filibuster and implement majority rule. That, after all, is what democracy is supposed to look like.