Filibuster Nation

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Judging by the first public meetings on health-care reform that members of Congress have begun convening in their districts, America is in Second Coming time, in the William Butler Yeats sense. The best may or may not lack all conviction, as Yeats wrote in his classic poem, but the worst are sure as hell full of passionate intensity.

Last weekend, right-wing Republicans stormed a number of such meetings across the country, shouting down members of the House and, in Philadelphia, Sen. Arlen Specter and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. In Austin, protesters blocked Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett's car and made it impossible for him to talk to constituents about such matters as appointments to military academies.

What's particularly curious about these two protests is that they took place on very liberal turf -- Philadelphia and Austin -- yet the local liberals and people of color seemed absent. Philadelphia is a heavily African American city, yet one strains to see any blacks among the protesters on the YouTube clips. The activists who have been whipped into a frenzy, and who have dominated the recess meetings so far, appear to be conservative whites.

Part of this imbalance is the result of the inherent difficulty in winning universal health insurance in a nation where five out of six Americans are already insured, however imperfectly and expensively. Securing an integrated national system may be essential to slowing the spiraling costs that make us less competitive than other nations, and securing a universal system may be a moral imperative, but neither is a cause that has sent millions into the streets. As yet, such institutional supporters of health-care reform as the unions and Obama's own legions aren't turning out crowds to match the right at the town meetings.

The right, by contrast, seems perpetually fired up, and not just on health care. At a town meeting last month, Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) was booed and heckled when he wouldn't concur with a noisy "birther" who argued that President Obama had been born in Kenya. This bit of social psychosis is limited almost entirely to Republicans: 77 percent of Americans, according to one recent poll, believe that Obama was born in the USA, but only 42 percent of Republicans do.

When future historians look back at this passage in our nation's history, I suspect they'll conclude that this Obama-isn't-American nuttiness refracted the insecurities and, in some cases, the hatred that a portion of conservative white America felt about having a black president and about the transformation of what many thought of as their white nation into a genuinely multiracial republic. But whatever the reasons, a mobilized minority is making a very plausible play to thwart a demobilized majority.

Meanwhile, that's exactly what's happening in Congress. Indeed, the very rules of the Senate empower mobilized minorities over majorities even when those majorities are mobilized, too. When the filibuster is employed, it takes 60 percent of the Senate, not 50 percent plus one, to enact legislation.

The rise of the filibuster should give constitutional originalists some pause. When the Senate first convened in 1789, just months after the Constitution was ratified, its rules allowed for calling the question (ending debate) by a simple majority vote. The Constitution had taken care to specify five kinds of issues that did require a two-thirds supermajority: treaty ratifications, expulsions of members, impeachments, the override of presidential vetoes and constitutional amendments. The Senate adhered to its simple majority rule for question-calling until 1806, when the rule lapsed because it seemed unnecessary: Scarcely any votes to call a question had been taken in the 17 years of the Senate's existence.

With that, the possibility of the filibuster was born, but filibusters didn't really come into use until Southern senators began using the maneuver to attempt to block civil rights legislation of the 1950s and '60s. They only became routine in the past few years, as the minority party in the Senate -- the Democrats until 2006, and the Republicans since -- sought to block legislation that had majority support but not the backing of a supermajority. In the 2007-08 session of Congress, Republicans forced 112 cloture votes, nearly doubling the Democrats' record when they were in the minority.

Simply put, that number means that the Senate now runs by minority rule. A more corrosive attack on the first principle of democracy, that of majority rule, is hard to conceive. The increasingly routine use of the filibuster stymies the efficacy of government (in itself a conservative objective) and negates the consequences of elections.

But minority rule is what today's Republicans are all about. Hence we see disruption in the districts and stagnation in the Senate. When and whether the majority will bestir itself to reestablish democracy's first principle is anybody's guess. Abolishing the filibuster would be a good start -- and perhaps a necessary step to enact to big changes like health reform.

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