As Republican John Dean (a former counsel to Richard Nixon) has written, prior to the elections of 1994 the Republicans spent years working hard to undermine the Democratic-controlled Congress, hoping to get the voters to blame the Democrats. It worked, and the Republicans became the majority congressional party for twelve years.
When the Democrats regained the majority in Jan. 2007, the Republicans went into full obstructionist mode again but into a higher gear than ever before. Trent Lott, the Republican senator from Mississippi, became the Minority Leader of the Republican Party and led the way to a then-record number of filibusters for a single year. Sen. Lott admitted that he didn’t know how long obstructionism would work for the party, but he was satisfied that, so far, it was working. He then resigned his Senate seat in Jan. 2008 to become a lobbyist. He didn’t want to complete his term because new rules that would prevent senators from becoming lobbyists immediately after leaving office would soon be in effect.
We have now completed three years of almost non-stop filibustering by the Republican Party to prevent the U. S. Congress from completing what it needs to be doing. Yes, they are still at it, and it still seems to be working. As long as the filibuster continues to be abused by the unified Republican minority on virtually every urgent issue, a 60-40 vote is needed to pass anything in the Senate. And the voters of Massachusetts recently elected a Republican senator, which reduces the Democratic majority to only 59 to 41.
A majority of that size should be enough to get anything done – right? That should be true even if you take into account that some Democratic or Independent senators can never be counted on – no matter what’s at stake. As for spacey Joe Lieberman, you never know what planet he’s going to wake up on. Ben Nelson of Nebraska is practically a Republican anyway. And Evan Bayh of Indiana seems to be so resentful that President Obama didn’t want him as his vice president that you never know what he’s going to do. However, a 56 to 44 majority should still be enough to accomplish the nation’s business – right? Wrong.
The Republican abuse of the filibuster has three partisan purposes – none of which are good for the nation but any of which should benefit the Republican Party on the next Election Day. (1) Prevent the Democrats from passing any bill that may deal with any of our multiple crises. (2) Force the Democrats to make compromises with each other to add things to any bill that will be odious to many voters: remember Ben Nelson’s support of health care reform only if the other 49 states agreed to pay for the increases in Nebraska’s Medicaid payments? (3) Force the Democrats to make compromises with Republicans to weaken the effectiveness of a bill: remember the Democrats had to cut nearly one million potential jobs from the stimulus bill to get Republicans Collins, Snowe, and Specter to vote for it – and that bill was probably already too weak to begin with.
The filibuster is not specifically provided for in the Constitution. Instead, it is a Senate tradition. Our Founding Fathers found the concept of a supermajority being needed to pass a piece of legislation to be unacceptable and contrary to efficiency and the concept of majority rule. A 60 % majority would have been absurd. That is why the Constitution states that in case of a tie (today, that would be 50-50), the vice president – as President of the Senate – would cast the tie-breaking vote. But that was before the vice president was a running mate of the president and before he was really a part of the executive branch. That was also before the evolution of official political parties. So, there is, indeed, a problem. Consequently, although the filibuster is not constitutional, it should not be done away with. There are times when it truly protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority. And, as the late newsman H. V. Kaltenborn said in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” it can represent true democracy in action.
I defended the use of the filibuster during the summer of 2005. That was when the Republican majority, led by Sen. Bill Frist of TN, attempted to get rid of the filibuster. The Republicans wanted to approve several of George W. Bush’s lifetime appointments to federal courts. The Republicans were trying to establish control over the judicial branch of the government by appointing right-wing extremists. The Democrats, led by Harry Reid, were filibustering the appointments, hoping to persuade the president to appoint mainstream judges instead. The idea was that lifetime appointees should be more traditionally conservative, moderate, or liberal instead of radical-reactionary.
I suspect that the reason that the Republicans have been abusing the filibuster is to, in effect, get rid of it. If they can use it to dupe enough voters to regain control of the House and Senate, then its use will be so distasteful to most voters that the Democrats will be less likely to use it again because they will be accused of doing the same thing the Republicans had done, although for different reasons.
I have been told that I often give the Republicans too much credit; they aren’t as clever as I think they are. But I still contend that although virtually everything they do appears to be irresponsible, they are not stupid. They know exactly what they are doing. Remember when the Republicans controlled the Congress for six years while Democrat Bill Clinton was president? Remember how they abused the office of special prosecutor to undermine the legitimacy of the impeachment process? Both the special prosecutor and the impeachment process were so discredited that Bush and Cheney were never exposed to even the possibility of impeachment hearings even after the Democrats regained the majority in Jan. 2007 – in spite of the obvious need. They are doing the same thing now with the tradition of the filibuster. They are discrediting its future use.
Also, remember the condition of the nation when President Barack Obama took office – many voters have already forgotten or ceased to care. Why have the Republicans been so dead set against his doing anything to fix any of the problems we faced then and now? Is it because they don’t want to admit what they had done, or is it because they led the country exactly where they wanted it and don’t want anything done to reverse their course?
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published January 29, 2010, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.