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100 Versus America

You think a tiny band of verbose old folks couldn’t stand in the way of a nation of 300 million? Meet the U.S. Senate.

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

The question has been asked before, but it’s never had more relevance than right now: What, precisely, is the point of the United States Senate? On Monday, November 30, the upper chamber began its historic debate on the reformation of the American health-care system. The next day, the senior senator from New Hampshire, Judd Gregg, dispatched a letter to his Republican colleagues advising them on how they could derail the proceedings. Not that Gregg put it quite that bluntly, mind you. Instead, he employed the lofty language of high purpose. “We are at an important crossroads both for the economy and for the health care system,” Gregg wrote. “We, the minority party, must use the tools we have under Senate rules to insist on a full, complete, and fully informed debate.”

Appended to Gregg’s letter were two pages laying out the tools to which the senator was referring: an array of parliamentary maneuvers, from “hard quorum calls” to “motions to recommit” to “offer[ing] an unlimited number of amendments—germane or non-germane—on any subject.” As Gregg solemnly pointed out, all these gambits are among the “rights” possessed by the opposition in the Senate. But make no mistake, their cumulative effect would be nothing more or less than to bring the legislative process to a grinding halt.

Nothing that extreme occurred last week, but what did take place was ominous enough. Thanks to Republican intransigence, it took four days to vote on the first two amendments offered for consideration. Equally disconcerting, on the Democratic side of the aisle, compromises are being piled on top of compromises on the public option, in the service of holding on to the clutch of moderate senators necessary to get to the magic 60 votes—compromises that might yield something worse than no public option at all, and yet still not win over Joe Lieberman, whose “matter of conscience” pledge to filibuster a final bill containing any public option hangs like a sword over the entire enterprise.

It’s still early days in the Senate debate, of course, and Harry Reid and his cohorts might still rise to the occasion. A bill might pass. It could even be decent. Who knows?

But the alarming possibility remains that the self-styled “world’s great deliberative body” might yet wind up deliberating health-care reform to death. And even if it doesn’t, the attempt to push it through has revealed something important about the Senate, especially when the Democrats are in power: a degree of dysfunction that makes every other institution in Washington look positively healthy and that, as much as any miscue by the White House team, has imperiled Barack Obama’s presidency.

The absurdity of the Senate revolves primarily around the filibuster, an extraconstitutional (possibly unconstitutional) mechanism that has gradually morphed from a rare occurrence to a commonplace threat, creating a de facto 60-vote supermajority requirement for virtually every piece of major legislation, and in the process routinely and systematically trampling majority rule. Throw in the proliferation of anonymous “holds” on presidential appointments, which are effectively a one-person filibuster, and the congenital pomposity of the upper chamber, and you have a legislative body at once far less effective than it could be and far more obnoxious than it should be.

Banging on about all this used to be a lonely business. But as the 60-vote threshold has grown more pervasive and obviously deleterious, some of the brightest young things in the progressive blogosphere—notably Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias—have become loud champions of procedural reform. And as the consequences for Obama in particular have become apparent, some actual non-journalistic activists have cottoned to the cause. “If a popular, shrewd president coupled with a Congress with a strong majority in both houses held by the president’s party can’t get its program passed—no matter which party we’re talking about—something is structurally wrong with the system,” says one organized-labor player. “If FDR had to deal with the ordinary use of the filibuster on every piece of Senate business, he would never have enacted Social Security, the NLRA, the SEC, and all of the other key pieces of the New Deal (or, at best, most of them would have been badly watered down), no matter how tough and eloquent he was.”

Most of the arguments against abolishing the filibuster are rooted in the historical misconception that the maneuver was part of the Framers’ vision. (In fact, it was a creation of the Senate and has been altered several times in its history.) But the truth is that, for all the sense that getting rid of it would make, both substantively and politically, the likelihood of its disappearance is vanishingly small. Why? Because, at bottom, senators like the filibuster. It comforts them, reassures them that they’ll still be relevant even when they’ve been relegated to the minority. It guarantees them, in other words, that they will never have to confront a situation that they fear more than death itself: being ignored.


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