Wednesday, November 11, 2009


The major blogs are starting to recognize the real problem with our current political landscape: the fact that our legislative system has frozen in place.

...Meyerson notes the Democrats' three great governing opportunities/challenges of the last century. The first was in 1933, when FDR and a Democratic Congress delivered on a New Deal. The second was in 1965, when LBJ and a Democratic Congress advanced the Great Society. The third is right now. And while the first two saw a flurry of legislative successes that came to define a generation, 2009 isn't working out the same way -- partly because Republicans have embraced obstructionism on an unprecedented scale, partly because some Democrats are conservatives who are comfortable with failure, and partly because of legislative procedural hurdles that FDR and LBJ didn't have to worry about.

As Benen notes, the partisan obstructionism of the Republicans is part of the reason we're not seeing more legislative action this year, or indeed out of the past 10 years (most legislation under the GOP tenure of the Aughts were self-serving deficit-increasing disasters like the handouts to Big Pharma in their Plan D package, every tax cut they could get away with, and funding two out-of-control wars). But the other aspects are just as bad: there are indeed Democrats not so much comfortable with failure as they are with the Status Quo - failure they can live with, they don't want to rock the boat and risk their incumbent re-election campaigns.

The other problem is the procedural hurdles currently in play. Worst of all is the filibuster rule. What was once an obscure rule is now an impediment on getting anything passed in the Senate (the House has no filibuster and so can pass laws by majority vote more quickly) because the filibuster can't be stopped (Cloture) unless two-thirds of the Senate votes to, which means you need 60 votes nowadays to ensure Cloture. Problem is where the Republicans are organized to a fault to where their own party is consuming themselves, the Democrats are disorganized to where each Senator can (and does) act like their own party and vote however they want... so even though they've GOT 60 Senators in their caucus (58 D plus 2 Ind), the Dems can't count on that 60 to really enforce anything because 20 of those asses will act up like petulant children and kick the furniture until they get their very own pony for Christmas... not that I'm expressing any frustration at the moment (DAMN YOU LIEBERMAN!). As a result, all the Republicans have to do (or Lieberman, YOU EFFING TRAITOR, just go R and BE DONE WITH IT) is threaten to filibuster and the Democrat-led Senate will freeze up and choke.

But the filibuster is only part of the problem.

What's worse is that a Senator can place a Secret (!) Hold on any motion from reaching the floor for a vote. This means anything (ANYTHING) that's gone through committee review and votes, from laws to nominees for key executive and judicial positions, can be held up for months (!) while NOTHING gets done. There's a boatload of vacancies in the White House and on our federal courts because Senators are abusing the Hold system out of partisan issues with particular agencies (or because they don't like the ideology of incoming administrations affecting who gets to fill lifetime judicial jobs). This is also what happened when Sens. Kyl and Hatch held up the unemployment benefits extension this month so they could essentially commit extortion. Both parties, let's be fair, have abused this rule, but right now it's gotten so much worse.

And WHAT MAKES IT WORSE is THE HOLD(S) IS/ARE SECRET. The Senator responsible for placing the hold doesn't have to be named in the official record, meaning they could hide their action from their voters back home and avoid accountability. It wasn't until an egregious hold placed on a government transparency bill of all things that a handful of aggrieved bloggers called around forcing nearly every Senator to flat-out deny they placed the hold (a direct public denial turning out to be a lie apparently never looks good on re-election efforts) until they narrowed the suspects down to four (by then the two culprits - Stevens and Byrd - fessed up). Subsequent Hold attempts are getting so brazen Senators are starting openly (but indirectly) to 'hint' who the bad guys are.

Attempts to fix the Filibuster and the Hold rules have come and gone, some brazenly partisan, others less so. For a while there, Holds were disallowed in the late 90s but then brought back. Either way, each procedural rule is turning out cause two problems: 1) they're undemocratic, preventing ANYTHING from getting done and 2) they create lack of accountability, not just for the Senators who abuse the procedures but also the Senators WHO LET THEM ABUSE IT.

The whole Upper House has gotten lazy and soft, beholden to themselves as Barons of power. And because of the short attention spans of the media (if not their state-bound voters), these Senators keep getting away with it. This leads to the Status Quo: unchanging, inflexible, stuck in ideas and beliefs 20 years out of date, and calcified.

We need reform. We need to fix the Senate truly before we can get any other reforms to save our nation in place. We need to set it in stone - not in the standing Senate Rules which no Senator will ever fix - but in amendments to the Constitution:

  • The Filibuster can only be used by a Senator with regards to debating the approval of a judicial nominee that is filled by lifetime appointment. During the first 5 business days of filibustering it will require 2/3 vote for Cloture, and after the 5 business days it will require a simple majority for Cloture, and no nomination can be filibustered more than once;
  • A Hold placed by a Senator on a legislative matter brought to the floor for a vote can only be in effect for up to 5 business days during which any questions the Senator has on the matter is resolved. The Senator must be named publicly and provide a written explanation for the Hold. The Senator cannot extend a Hold on that legislation (if the questions he/she has on the matter aren't resolved, he/she can still vote No), and only two Holds can be placed on the matter brought to the floor.

To finish out, a quote from Benen:
Facing extraordinary crises and challenges, the United States has a legislative branch that is barely able to legislate at all. The system can see the problems, but is struggling badly to address them. The first step in changing the way Congress operates is creating the demand -- most of the public has no idea that the Senate no longer operates by majority rule. Public frustration can lead to proposals, which can lead to debate, which can lead to solutions.

Support any and all efforts to get amendments, rules, whatever it takes to get reform methods - getting rid of Secret Holds, limiting the Filibuster to just votes on lifetime judicial appointments - in place AND FIX THE SENATE.


Cammi said...
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Cammi said...
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Cammi said...

You say "for months"... Do you know how long a secret hold can last? Your blog has intrigued me so I am writing about this for a class project. I'm having trouble finding specifics on this process.

Oh! If only I could speak politics as fluently as you, this online GOVT class would be so much less painful! But thanks to your blog, I've officially been entertained!

Paul Wartenberg said...

Holy...! I have a commentator!

Cammi, first place to start is the "Standing Rules of the Senate". The process for placing Secret Holds is listed there.

Also, in the article I've linked the Secret Holds phrase to a wiki entry. If you're doing this for class, your teacher won't fully appreciate using Wiki as a direct source, but wiki has a list of 16 references (right now) you can research more thoroughly.

For what I know about Secret Holds, in theory a Hold can be overturned by Cloture vote same as a Filibuster. Problem is, in practice fellow Senators are not duly interested in 'rocking the boat' (again) and they let the Holds sit, even if it's inconveniencing their own party when they are in majority power, simply because they don't want their own Holds overturned later on. In the Senate, the Status Quo rules.

For any other research, check with a law library at a local university or usually one at a county/city courthouse.