Flaccid Filibuster Reform Throws a Wet Blanket on 'Audacity'

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with reporters following a Republican strategy session at the Capitol i
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with reporters following a Republican strategy session at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talked a big game about taking apart the filibuster leading up to his Grand Bargain with Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky senator now promises to play nice. But like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown, he has once again snookered the hapless Majority Leader. Reid has rewarded McConnell for his years of obstructionism and hyper-partisanship. The whole charade wouldn't matter much if the fate of the United States and the world didn't depend to a large degree on the decisions of these 100 politicians.

Reid's handshake deal with McConnell means there'll be no "talking filibuster" like in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and he also caved on the idea of requiring a 41-vote threshold to filibuster. Senators can still saunter over to the floor followed by a text message from a staffer and tie up any piece of legislation that doesn't meet their fancy. And without a formal vote on altering the filibuster, we don't even know all of the Democratic senators who sided with McConnell and the Republicans to hold them accountable.

This flaccid filibuster "reform" will prove to be one of the biggest political errors of the Obama years. For the U.S. Senate, after a hard-fought election where a Democratic president won re-election and Democrats picked up seats, this cloakroom deal (coupled with the GOP's control of the House) ensures that Obama will be forced to govern like a lame duck.

Senator McConnell knows that people don't generally understand or care about arcane parliamentary procedures and will simply blame the majority party for the failures to get anything done that might have a positive impact on their lives. Dysfunction is not popular. The people do not vote for politicians so they can sit on their duffs and block progress on the vital issues confronting the nation. (This aversion to a do-nothing Congress is why opinion polls show many Americans like the idea of not paying politicians until they do their jobs, like pass fair budgets.)

What a sweet deal for Republicans: They trash the government for being dysfunctional while behind the scenes doing everything they can with their overblown minority power to ensure that the government is dysfunctional.

We won't be seeing Vice President Joe Biden breaking any 50-50 ties in the Senate like Dick Cheney did because there ain't gonna be any tie votes. The Republicans in the Senate, through their historic abuse of the filibuster, unilaterally altered the majority-rule clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

People might argue that the Dems will need the filibuster when they're in the minority. But when they were the minority party Senate Democrats never had the guts to exploit the filibuster like the GOP has done in recent years. And when did a Democratic Minority Leader ever say publicly that his number one goal was to see that a sitting Republican president became a one-term president?

In a period when Republicans have gerrymandered their control of the House of Representatives probably until 2022; when Republican legislatures (such as in Virginia) have moved aggressively to draw safe districts and even push changing the rules for proportionally allotting electoral votes in presidential elections; and where Republicans at the state level employed every kind of voter suppression trick in the book, we now see another example of Democratic acquiescence to GOP power.

With public opinion of Congress at a historic low, failing to strip the minority of veto power over legislation will only lead to more gridlock, more brinkmanship, and lower poll ratings for the institution the Senators claim to love.

In California, for years we watched this same scenario play out. The Republican minority ruthlessly enforced its control over just enough votes in the legislature to block any budget from being passed that it disapproved of. Despite election after election where Californians sent to Sacramento good people to solve the state's problems in the form of solid Democratic majorities in both chambers, the Democrats couldn't govern or do much of anything over the ferocious obstruction of the Republican minority. At a time when California's economy was reeling from the worst recession since the Great Depression, members of the Republican minority took advantage of the crisis to push their tired agenda of tax cuts for the rich and gutting social programs and environmental regulations. The California legislature earned a 9 percent approval rating.

In California no progress could be made while the Republican minority held veto power over the state's budgets. The state reached a breaking point economically between 2007 and 2011 and the Golden State's Republican politicians became even more recalcitrant. The 2012 spectacle of Governor Jerry Brown touring the state, north and south, to pass Proposition 30 was because the extremist Republican minority wouldn't match Governor Brown's $26 billion in budget cuts with one penny of new revenues. The governor had no choice but to take it to the people after six months of "moving heaven and earth" to try to secure four Republican votes in the legislature, not to raise taxes, but simply to allow Californians to vote on whether they wanted to raise taxes. Thankfully the voters snatched the destiny of the state from the clutches of the Republican minority.

The wider narrative of Democratic spinelessness at a time when they should be showing backbone has just been reinforced. The Democratic politicians, including President Obama, talk a big game, but when exercising power, such as mustering the 51 votes needed to change the filibuster, you can count on them to fail.

Republican obstructionism, "leverage," brinkmanship, and political jockeying at the expense of thoughtful governance, will continue as it did during Obama's first term. The Democratic cave-ins on key issues will also continue. How can we do anything about climate change when climate science deniers among Senate Republicans will filibuster? Or help the poor and labor unions when anti-labor Republicans will filibuster? It's bad enough that states like Idaho have the same number of senators as New York or California, but to add injury to insult the Senate is full of corporate shills who enforce their will on the rest of us.

Obama's second term now is probably going to look a lot like Bill Clinton's second term. He'll be persuaded to shelve the "audacity" to secure his "legacy" by passing abysmal legislation that Republicans (and the Beltway press) love. He'll be lauded in the corporate media for his willingness to "compromise" and for striking a "Grand Bargain" while we watch the ball continue to bounce in the Republicans' direction.

Watching a Democratic Senate and administration succumb to Republican policy prerogatives (even while winning elections and campaigning against them) is a spectacle that will further erode their credibility. It will probably become more obvious that the Democrats sup at the same corporate trough as their opponents.

Harry Reid runs the Senate like a gentlemen's country club always believing that his Republican colleagues will "do the right thing." But they never do. Being detached from political reality means peril for the Democrats because we're in the "Obama era." Politically, the administration is a target rich environment.

Retaining the meat of the filibuster is a win-win situation for the Republicans: They get to block Obama's agenda; and they get to blame Democrats for failing to improve people's lives while they position themselves for the 2014 and 2016 elections.

The day after the November election I wrote a blog urging Senator Reid to dispense with the filibuster. Although I remained hopeful, "I'll believe it when I see it," was in the back of my mind. And, lo and behold, the Democrats, true to form, refused to fight McConnell straight away and chose the path that will only encourage the Republicans to continue to pretend that Obama's reelection never took place.

We're off to a wobbly start. Obama talked tough about letting the Bush tax cuts expire for those earning $250,000 a year or more, only to immediately back down to change it to $400,000. He didn't have to do that just like Reid didn't have to move in McConnell's direction on the filibuster.

The Democrats should try something new: Stand up for what you believe in, have a public fight about it, and then if you lose you still look like you have principles and a backbone. Reid's filibuster deal with McConnell makes the Democrats look like they have neither principles nor backbone.