Change in Congress Looks Awfully Familiar

The filibuster needs to be used more judiciously, not as a political tool to keep the majority from governing.

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Players may change, and the party which controls the chambers of Congress may change, but one thing stays distressingly consistent: the House is run by an iron-handed majority, and the Senate is run by the minority.

The House this week adopted its rules for the 112th Congress, and unsurprisingly, they heavily favor the majority Republicans. (The Democrats, it should be noted, also used the rules to their advantage, especially through the powerful Rules Committee, which is hyper-weighted toward the majority party no matter what the party breakdown in the chamber.) The GOP says it is committed to more transparency and general openness in law-making. That’s laudable, but the party is already breaking the spirit of its commitment.

Both parties, while in the minority, complain bitterly about “closed rules,” the term used to describe legislation that comes to the floor without an opportunity to amend it. There is some logic to this; if reams of amendments were able to be offered on every bill, nothing would get done. The Senate, with 100 members, already gets bogged down with amendment fights. Multiply that by 4.35 and you’ll get a sense of how it could strangle the House. Still, the GOP’s first big mission--to repeal the healthcare overhaul law President Obama signed last year--is being put on the floor without any opportunity for amendments. This prevents members, for example, from offering amendments keeping intact the more popular elements of the law, such as allowing parents to keep their young adult children on their healthcare plans until the younger insureds are 26. [Check out our editorial cartoons on healthcare.]

The new majority also voted to deny the right of House delegates to vote on amendments on the floor when the House meets under the description of “committee of the whole.” This is pettiness for no substantive reason: delegates who had this voting power before were not allowed to be the deciding votes on the issue. But it gave tax-paying voters in the District of Columbia an opportunity to see how their Democratic delegate would have voted. It’s appalling enough that a century and a half after the Civil War, citizens in the heavily African-American District of Columbia are not afforded federal voting rights. Denying the district even the chance for a symbolic vote is adding insult to severe injury--and for no real reason other than to muzzle a relatively powerless Democratic vote.

[See a roundup of political cartoons on Democrats and on Republicans.]

In the Senate, meanwhile, the minority still rules, since the threat of filibusters has become so common that nothing can pass without a 60-vote majority. Democrats are talking about changing the rules, and some should indeed be scrapped. The practice of allowing an anonymous Senator to put a “hold” on a nomination is anti-democratic and enables cowards. That rule should go. Both parties are being hypocritical in their discussions of the filibuster: the GOP, lambasting Democrats who want to get rid of it, conveniently forget former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s effort to scrap the filibuster for nominations. But Democrats should also remember that they will be, at some point, again in the minority, and might regret giving up the only tool the minority has to control the passage of legislation. [See 2010: The Year in Cartoons.]

What needs to happen is for the filibuster to be used more judiciously, and more rarely--not as a political tool to keep the majority from governing. But that would require a level of comity and mutual respect not seen in the Capitol for some time.

  • See a slide show of new faces in the Senate.
  • Follow the money in Congress.
  • Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.