Thu04172014

GOP filibusters against Obama likely to increase

Since blocking President Barack Obama’s proposals seems to be the GOP’s primary goal, we can be sure that Senate filibusters will be more in evidence in the days ahead.
 
 George E. Hardin

As the 112th Congress marks its opening days, the Republican Party has a majority in the House of Representatives and the Democratic Party has a majority in the Senate, although it is a slim one. One does not need the gift of prophecy to predict that the forthcoming two years will be contentious.

Since blocking President Barack Obama’s proposals seems to be the GOP’s primary goal, we can be sure that Senate filibusters will be more in evidence in the days ahead. During a filibuster, a parliamentary maneuver historically used to block debate and stymie the actions of opponents, a senator who has the floor is allowed to talk without restraint. The original idea was that any senator’s comments should be unrestricted. But in practice the filibuster has been turned into an obstructionist strategy, with senators talking for hours sometimes about topics that have no relation to the issue at hand, causing gridlock at the highest level of our national government.

When a filibuster is under way, no vote on anything can occur unless 60 senators (three fifths of the 100 senators—a supermajority) agree to cloture—a vote to end the filibuster. With 51 Democratic senators, 47 Republicans and 2 Independents, and with the present level of hostility, it will be difficult for Democrats to get the 60 votes needed for cloture.

The word “filibuster” derives from a Dutch word meaning “pirate,” a Senate description says, and was first used more than 150 years ago to describe “efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent action on a bill.” Basically, one senator can stop 99 others from doing anything on behalf of the American people.

John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House, who has opposed virtually everything President Obama has tried to do, engaged in a short-lived filibuster-type maneuver last June when he read some of the 300 pages of amendments to an energy bill designed to reduce carbon emissions and promote the development of renewable energy. Filibusters are not allowed in the House, but rules permit the House Minority Leader, which Boehner was at that time, to speak while at the microphone for as long as he wishes.

The late J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina holds the record for history’s longest filibuster. The segregationist senator filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes in protest against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He assailed the Civil Rights Act, which focused on ensuring African Americans the right to vote, as unconstitutional and “cruel and unusual punishment.” He read the Constitution, rambled on about his grandmother’s biscuit recipe and read from various telephone books. His efforts failed, however. The bill, the first civil rights legislation passed by Congress since Reconstruction, was approved 60-15 less than two hours after he finished. The House approved it 270-97.

“The incessant misuse of the filibuster,” The Nation claims, “has turned the Senate into an increasingly dysfunctional body where, quite frankly, it’s miraculous that anything ever gets done.”

Democrats are hoping to reform the rules and make it more difficult to filibuster.

Every Senate Democrat has signed a letter suggesting that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid raise the issue in Congress.

Recent cases in which Republicans used the filibuster or threatened to do so include: unemployment compensation and payment for 9/11 emergency workers, repeal of the don’t ask, don’t tell military policy, requiring disclosure of interest-group spending to influence elections, ending pay discrimination based on gender, and a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said recently, “Here at the close of the 111th Congress, the abuse of the filibuster has been on full, disgusting display.”

The Senate has been called the world’s most exclusive club. It should not seem to be an imposition to ask that those who represent us in such an august body refrain from the arrogant incivility that takes place when a filibuster is in full bloom.

(George E. Hardin worked as a photographer, reporter and editor, and in public relations during a long career before he retired. His column appears every other week.)

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