Dec 15th 2010

Why it is Critical to Reform Senate Rules In January

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.

The first day of a new Congress is generally filled with ceremonial events and receptions. But the first day of the next Congress, January 5, 2011, could be the most important legislative day of the entire session.

The day a new Senate convenes, fifty-one Senators can set the rules for the body with a simple majority vote. January 5, 2011 is the day that the Senate should adopt rules that limit the ability of the minority to obstruct and circumvent the will of the majority by using the filibuster and secret holds.

For the first time in years, there is a major movement afoot among Democratic Senators to make those changes. That movement is fueled by growing frustration among Democratic voters at the way Republican leader Mitch McConnell calls so many shots in the Senate, even though Democrats are in the majority. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is forced by the Senate rules to get 60 votes for almost any substantial piece of legislation. Democrats want their members of the Senate to stand up and fight back.

Just as important, a clear message of the November election was the demand from swing voters that Washington takes action and gets results - especially when it comes to the economy. Voters want an end to partisan gridlock.

Frustration among Democrats has boiled over in response to the deal that President Obama was forced to cut with Republicans in order to guarantee critically needed economic stimulus for the fragile economy. To pass critical new economic stimulus programs and the continuation of others like Unemployment Compensation, and a number of middle class tax cuts, Republican leaders demanded a two- year extension of the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy.

In addition, they threw in a demand that the inheritance tax, which was due to return to its pre-2001 levels at the first of the year, be cut as well. Estates under $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples would be exempt entirely. And the rates paid by the multi-millionaire families that remained would be cut to 35%. This proposal would save hundreds of millions of dollars for the sons and daughters of multi-millionaires. Democrats in
Congress were outraged that to assure aide to the unemployed, the Paris Hiltons of the world would be handed millions of dollars by the Republicans leadership.

Many everyday voters simply can't understand why, if the Democrats control the White House, the Senate - and at least for the next few weeks, the House - they can't pass gravely needed economic stimulus without doing this kind of deal with Republicans. How is it that the Republican leaders could hold unemployment and middle class tax cuts hostage to the needs of the rich?

The answer is the Senate Rules. Democrats currently have a majority of 58 votes in the Senate. But to pass anything meaningful they need a super-majority of 60. That's not because the Constitution requires such a super-majority. It's because of rules adopted by members of the Senate - that have been abused by the obstructionist Republican minority.

Republicans weren't going to give votes to any measure for economic stimulus unless tax breaks for the rich were part of the package.

Infuriating? It's just the latest in a series of successful Republican attempts to obstruct action by the majority.

Just think how different the last two years would have been if every measure did not require 60 votes:

* Congress would have passed a substantially larger economic stimulus plan in early 2009 that could have materially increased the rate of economic growth and put millions of Americans back to work. Not only would that have benefited everyday Americans, it would have translated into much better Democratic performance in last month's elections - and all that implies over the next two years.

* The health care reform bill would have included a Public Option that would have helped control health care costs, cut the long- term Federal deficit, and - because it was one of the most popular elements of the President's health care reform - would have increased the popularity of the entire measure.

* Comprehensive Immigration Reform would have passed the Congress and been signed into law.

* "Don't Ask Don't Tell" would have been repealed.

* And, of course the tax cuts for the Middle Class and unemployment insurance would have been continued -- and tax breaks for the wealthy would have been discontinued. Who knows, Congress might even have been able to pass legislation imposing a large tax on the outrageous, obscene multi-million dollar bonuses being paid by Wall Street to its top producers - just in time for Christmas.

In fact, the current Senate rules not only empower minority Republicans, they also empower Wall Street and other special interests. It's very hard to get a 60- vote super -majority for any major policy in America. The 60- vote super-majority means that special interests can concentrate their efforts - and contributions - on recruiting just a few Senators who can then prevent the Senate from taking any action that compromises their interests. It empowers political "hostage takers" who represent the most powerful elements of corporate America rather than the majority of Americans.

Senators are talking about a number of key ways to change Senate rules that would limit the power of the minority to obstruct the will of the majority.. Senator Tom Harkin has proposed a plan to lower the number of votes needed to cut off debate (to end a filibuster) gradually over a number of days. The first day it would take 60 votes. Two days later it would take 57 votes. Two days after that, 55 votes -- then 53 and finally 51.

Others have proposals to shift the burden of maintaining a filibuster to those who want to prevent a majority vote. You might, for instance, require that at any time, at any hour, any member could ask for a "Cloture Call,", much the same way they can ask for a quorum call today. If 41 Senators did not report to the floor to answer that they wished to sustain the filibuster, then the filibuster would end. Such a rule would require those who want to filibuster to actually filibuster - and to constantly provide the votes to sustain it.

Right now the burden is on the majority to muster the 60 votes necessary to end a filibuster - not the other way around. That task is made more difficult because all the minority needs to do is call for a quorum, and if 51 Senators do not report to the floor, the Senate is simply adjourned until a quorum is once again present. Then the "filibuster" can resume. Right now there is no incentive for the minority not to filibuster everything. Under the proposals of those who want to shift the burden of maintaining a filibuster to the minority, any quorum call would automatically trigger an end to the filibuster.

Reformers have proposed a variety of other changes, such as ending filibusters for nominations, eliminating onerous time requirements intended to make it impractical for the Senate to consider controversial issues or nominations, and ending "secret holds".
What are the arguments made against changing the Senate rules?

Some Democrats are worried that if the Republicans once again take control of the Senate in 2012, they would be unable to use the filibuster to stop right wing initiatives. The problem with that argument is that no one doubts that if the Republicans took control of the Senate and felt they needed to change the rules to have their way, they would change the rules in a heart beat. One thing you have to admire about the Republicans, they do what ever is necessary to achieve their goals. Nothing would stop them from ending the filibuster and changing other Senate rules as well, if they stood in their way.

In fact the Republicans already threatened to take precisely that action in the confrontation with Democrats over judicial nominees in 2005. The Republicans didn't do it then, because Democrats agreed not to use the filibuster "except in extra-ordinary circumstances".
Other Democrats believe that the current Senate rules foster bi-partisanship. In fact, just the opposite is true. The 60-vote rule gives the Republicans every incentive to try to kill legislation. If bills required a simple majority, the minority would be forced to negotiate if they wanted to affect the shape of legislation since they would no longer have the power to obstruct them outright.

And finally there are some Senators who argue that the Senate is governed by "continuing rules" that can only be changed by 67 votes. The Supreme Court ruled years ago that the only limitation imposed by the Constitution on the rules of Congress is that a quorum of the Senate is 50 percent plus one. And of course the idea that previous Senates can bind the rules of the current Senate is ridiculous on its face. What if one Senate passed a rule that all bills required 80% of all votes and that it took 100% of Senators to change them? That would effectively prevent the Senate from taking action on anything the least bit controversial. Would it then be impossible ever again to change the Senate rules to make it function once again without unanimous consent? Obviously that's absurd.

In fact, if fifty- one Senators vote yes on a new package of Senate rules and the Vice-President, who is Presiding Officer of the Senate, rules that they acted properly, those will be the new Senate rules, since the Courts have no basis to challenge them.

Next year the Republicans will have iron clad control of the House. It would be outrageous if Democrats allowed a minority of Republican Senators to use the current rules to limit what the Democratic majority can do in the Senate. If they are not changed, the Republicans will use the current Senate rules to call the shots in the Senate as well as the House - and to materially limit the President's ability to enact a Democratic program. The process of negotiation between Republicans in the House and Democrats in the Senate will become a negotiation between a House that speaks with a clear Republican voice and a Senate where the Democratic majority and Republican Minority effectively act as co-equals.

So if you're furious at how Mitch McConnell's Republican minority is holding America hostage, the time has come to do something about it. Ask your Senators to support changing the Senate rules that allow the Republican minority to obstruct the will of the majority.

Robert Creamer's book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "
Jan 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "Barack Obama cautioned in his final speech as president that, “Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.” Yet isn’t that exactly what America has been doing? In a decade punctuated by the global financial crisis, the COVID-19 crisis, a racial-justice crisis, an inequality crisis, and now a political crisis, we have only paid lip service to lofty democratic ideals. ... Sadly, this complacency has come at a time of growing fragility for the American experiment. Internet-enabled connectivity is dangerously amplifying an increasingly polarized national discourse in an era of mounting social and political instability. The resulting vulnerability was brought into painfully sharp focus on January 6. The stewardship of democracy is at grave risk. "