Forget Obama—Bust the filibuster

Russ Caditz-Peck

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President Obama’s State of the Union address was a great speech: it had urgency, humor and a little something for everyone. But forget the spin you heard on CNN. In terms of real political change: that is, passing President Obama’s agenda: the speech mattered very, very little.

In fact, let’s take that a step further. In terms of passing health care reform, climate change, a jobs bill, etc., the role of the President matters much, much less than the media’s talking heads: or the public: seem to imagine.

While the president may offer a compelling character and simple narrative device for our news media, democracy is a complicated affair. Perhaps above all else, democracy requires an informed public. Right now, the public needs to be informed about the power of the Senate filibuster: and how Republicans are now using it more than ever in American history to block any and all reform.

As of last week, only 26 percent of Americans knew the basic Senate filibuster rule: that it now takes 60 votes rather than a simple majority to pass a bill in the Senate.

Why should Americans care?

Because if the American democratic experiment is to succeed, then those we elect must be allowed to govern. Elections must matter. If voters continue to see no change when they elect a massive majority: such as in the 2008 cycle: the hope and optimism at the heart of the democratic experiment will quickly be replaced by cynicism and apathy.

Yes, Republicans will someday take back the majority and attempt to reverse Obama’s policies. But that: after all: is democracy. In order to return to a democratic state, Americans must recognize how obstructionists in the Senate have been able to hold up Obama’s promise, mandate, and need to address our nation’s pressing problems. In order to properly tackle the growing health care crisis, crooked financial system, rising unemployment, and the threat of climate change, Americans must learn how our nation has been rendered ungovernable.

Here’s the background: the Senate filibuster rule was not created by the Framers, nor is it mentioned in the Constitution. In fact, the filibuster as we know it only came into existence in 1975, thanks to a minor procedural rule change as part of a liberal compromise intended to advance the civil rights agenda.

The rule change created a 60-vote requirement in the Senate to begin voting on a bill, while also removing the need for Senators to physically stand and speak before the chamber to block voting. As a result, we now have a gridlock-prone system in which Senators easily, anonymously, and undemocratically block legislation from behind closed doors.

Franklin D. Roosevelt needed only 51 votes to pass the New Deal. Lyndon B. Johnson needed only 51 votes to pass the Civil Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid. Even Ronald Reagan: whose 1981 tax cuts were technically filibuster-proof as part of the budgeting process: needed only 51 votes to pass the centerpiece of his “Reagan Revolution.”

Yet since Obama’s inauguration, the lack of public knowledge of the 60-vote filibuster: and the failure of the media or the Democratic Party to inform the public: has allowed Republicans to drive down Obama’s approval ratings by rejecting the relative bipartisanship of the post-9/11 era and quietly becoming the tiny “Party of No.”

When the relatively-liberal voters of Massachusetts elected a Republican to the Senate last month in a special election, only 38 percent of those voters said they were motivated by opposition to Obama’s policies. Rather, polls indicate that the frustration stemmed from the failure of Democrats to boldly pass their agenda.

Now with just 41 votes in the Senate, Republicans have obstructed the agenda Americans overwhelmingly voted for in 2008. While the U.S. House has passed progressive bills, Senate Republicans and a few conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats have used the filibuster threat to stall, and potentially derail, the necessary change that we elected President Obama and his fellow Democrats to deliver.

Unless Americans learn about and put an end to the filibuster, voters will continue to witness a government that struggles to address their needs. Once Americans understand the rule, I am confident we will abandon it in favor of our democratic values and a return to a system in which the election of a supermajority can lead to real change.

This is not to downplay the fact that President Obama can: and must: work hard to wrangle votes in the Senate for his agenda. But as Obama’s first year has taught us, winning Senate votes has less to do with masterful speech-making than the legislative nitty-gritty: bargaining with Senators over specific requests, and recruiting formidable candidates to run from the left against Republicans and corporatist Democrats who could use some electoral pressure to moderate their stances.

In our news media and our casual conversations, the president must not be anointed the metaphorical father of the nation. Rather, the filibuster: and those in power calling for its reform: must now be at the center of our national discourse. It’s time to abandon our over-emphasis of the role of the President of the United States, and focus where the real power now lies: in the undemocratically empowered filibuster-threatening Senate.

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