Saving the Senate From Itself

This month's tax deal starkly illustrates the enormous power wielded by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In fact, his role confirms our government is not operating as a democracy ruled by the will of the majority, but as a strangled entity tightly in the grasp of the Senate Republican minority and its take-no-prisoners minority leader.

For the last 23 months, this country has been stymied by Senator McConnell and his cohorts through their abuse of the filibuster in the United States Senate. The most recent tax bill enactment and the failure of the Omnibus appropriations act (which finances the costs of running the government) are just hints of what we can expect in the next two years if the rules of governing do not change.

For the last two years the House of Representatives has passed legislation addressing a range of issues, and sent it to the United States Senate for consideration. Rather than honestly arguing those bills in the Senate, Senator McConnell and his fellow Republicans repeatedly have prevented debate and votes on any measure they oppose or on any measure that might be perceived as politically positive for the president -- even if the legislation was originally proposed by Republicans. So, for two years, the Congress has been ruled by the Senate Republican minority. The United States government is no longer functioning on principles of majority rule, and this is entirely due to flagrant abuse of Senate rules.

The Senate is a deliberative body, and its minority members certainly should have a voice in the development of legislation. But Senator McConnell's use of the filibuster -- to block consideration of all manner of legislation -- is a cynical distortion of a long-established Senate procedure. Senate rules should not be twisted to prevent Congress passing laws which the elected majority deems necessary and appropriate.

Abuse of the filibuster and its action-stalling 60-vote threshold has resulted in a fundamentally corrosive fact that undercuts basic democratic principles: abusing the filibuster means that elections do not really matter. Senator McConnell does not use the filibuster to give the minority a voice, but instead to shut down the Senate -- to stop deliberation, to stop the advance of legislation, to make sure elections don't have consequences. The American people elected a strong majority of Democrats in 2008 to both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but Senator McConnell's abuse of the filibuster repeatedly has frustrated the will of the people reflected by that election.

Recently, Senator McConnell announced that his sole objective is to prevent the reelection of President Barack Obama in 2012, and that his abuse of the filibuster in the last two years was just a warm-up. The next two years are going to be even more undemocratic. Republicans have announced that "compromise" is not in their vocabulary. Compromise is UnRepublican. So, finding solutions to the confounding problems the country faces -- restoring our tattered social safety net, reforming our tax system so it is fair, helping the private sector remake the economy for the 21st century, safeguarding our fragile environment -- will grind to a halt until every demand of Senator McConnell and the Republican minority of the United States Senate is satisfied.

Fortunately, this grim scenario does not have to happen. The situation is not hopeless. Contrary to common misunderstanding, today's Senate rules were not written in 1789 and they are not immutable. The current rules governing the procedures of the Senate were adopted in the 1970s. Many also believe Senate rules can be changed only with a super majority (67 of 100 Senators) voting for change -- this, too, is false.

Senate rules can be changed, and several senators presently are working hard to modify them to overcome the vice-grip of the filibuster. On the first day of the new 112th Congress, January 5th, 2011, a senator may propose to change the filibuster rule. The vice president of the United States, the presiding officer of the U.S. Senate, may determine that Senate rules may be changed by a simple majority vote of the Senate. Appeal of any ruling by the presiding officer may be subject to a simple majority vote.

If the Senate filibuster rules are not changed so that elections again matter and the majority can govern, then our country will be paralyzed by the unrelenting parliamentary manipulation of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his compliant colleagues. Enough is enough. It is time to change the rules to allow the Senate to function as the great deliberative, and decisive, body it can be.