As this year's congressional session closes out, obstructionism by the Republican minority reached a fever pitch and effectively stymied much of the Democrats' legislative program. In just the past few weeks alone, two bills that made up a major part of the Democratic agenda were killed through GOP parliamentary maneuvers.
On December 7, Republicans derailed an energy bill that would have reduced dependence on foreign oil, by denying it the 60 votes it needed to make it through the Senate. Democrats were forced to pass a watered-down measure. A few days later, a bill that would have expanded government-provided health insurance for children made it through the Senate but succumbed to President Bush's veto.
The two episodes underscored what has become an epidemic of gridlock within the halls of government. Indeed, a recent study by the progressive-research organization, Campaign for America's Future, claims that "conservatives in the U.S. Senate" have set a "modern-day record for obstruction." Only half way through the 110th Congress there have been 62 cloture votes to move beyond a filibuster, one more than the previous record set during the entirety of the 107th Congress in 2002.
The congressional gridlock has been glaringly reflected in public dissatisfaction. A recent Zogby poll reveals that only 13% of Americans have a positive view of congress. But a double digit majority says it prefers Democrats -not Republicans--running Capitol Hill.
"There is incredible Republican unity, some say they are staying on this ship as it sinks," Eric Lotke, research director at Campaign for America's Future told the Huffington Post. "What the Dems did wasn't half bad they got some things done on student loans and minimum wage. And I think the failure headlines are overstated. But that's only one hand. On the other hand, boy I wish they had done actual filibustering."
Indeed, many of items that made up the Democratic wish list in the 2006 elections ended up stuck under the weight of parliamentary procedure in the year that followed; including almost all Iraq-war related legislation, immigration reform, and even a bill to allow residents of the District of Columbia to vote.
"By sticking with President Bush on issue after issue - from changing course in Iraq, to closing tax loopholes on big oil companies - and by filibustering measures that passed overwhelmingly, this year's class of Bush Republicans shattered the two-year record in just the first year of session," Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, told the Huffington Post. "Their feat was akin to Mark McGwire breaking Roger Maris' home run record of 61 in a season by the All-Star break. Unfortunately, while Bush Republicans may be the real winners in their game of obstruction, the American people have lost."
The record books may be shattered. But conservatives respond by noting that only two years ago it was the Democratic minority that was holding up the Republican agenda. Moreover, they add, the items being pushed are far from, as the Democrats suggest, consensus legislation.
"You can almost argue that the Republicans learned form the Democrats when they were filibustering Republican judges effectively," Brian Darling, director of U.S. Senate Relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told The Huffington Post. "[Reid] should not bring up such controversial pieces of legislation... any measure that puts conditions on the way the war is fought is going to be filibustered by Republicans. So bringing it up again and again without extended session shows the Democratic leadership is not really committed to passing these measures, just in making statements."
And yet, for all the political back-and-forth over who is to blame, the Campaign for America's Future report underscores what many consider a far more worrisome issue facing government. The proliferation of the filibuster, political observers argue, is simply, and sadly, a modern political reality.
"There is a tendency when you lose power to hunker down," Stu Rothenberg, editor of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, told The Huffington Post. "Even the study notes that the previous record was in the 107th Congress. This is the 110th. Meaning it is a development. This is not the Republicans doing something totally out of the blue. This is how the Senate now works where the minority party increasingly feels like it has got its back up against the wall."
Solutions to the gridlock are few and far between. Democrats and Republicans could work more closely behind closed doors to hammer out deals before legislative showdowns. But neither party's ideological base is much interested in compromise. Or, Reid and the Democrats could stage more all-night sessions, in an effort to pressure and embarrass their Republican colleagues into acquiescence.
But, as Rothenberg notes, "you are not going to have [Sens.] John Warner or Ted Kennedy or Ted Stevens sleeping in cots..." Meaning both parties are often left waiting for the other to relent. "The system can't go on like this," Rothenberg said. "At some point you just keep putting it off, there is going to be an explosion among the electorate or a third party. There are too many filibusters and too many objections. And it just stinks."