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Thursday, January 6, 2011

An Australian Observes Our Congress

This is how our clownish Congress looks down under. Note that the writer is a comedian. Sorry to say, his story ain't funny!
05 January 2011

The US Senate is a complete joke (and what to do about it)

Chas Licciardello

Paul Keating once referred to the Australian Senate as “unrepresentative swill”.

But for an equivalent description of the US Senate you’d have to pass Keating and go directly to Kevin ‘Bloody’ Wilson. And then give him Tourettes.

Because the US Senate is a massive joke - and not a witty, urbane Oscar Wilde kind of joke. More like a painful, soul-destroying Little Fockers kind of joke. To explain why, let’s take a step back…

What is the Senate supposed to do?

Like the Australian Senate, the primary purpose of the US Senate is as a house of review. The House of Representatives passes a bill laden with pork. The Senate adds more pork. And then everyone leans over the president’s shoulder grinning like idiot stalkers while he/she signs it into law.

However, unlike the Australian Senate, it doesn’t stop there. The US Senate is also responsible for confirming many of the president’s nominees for federal positions. These include everything from the Federal Reserve Board through to the principal deputy under secretary for personnel and readiness. (And yes, that position does exist. I checked.) Not to mention the approximately 900 judgeships they also have to confirm, including those for the Supreme Court. The complete list is here. Enjoy.

Two-thirds of sitting senators are also required to ratify international treaties negotiated by the president.

And finally, the Senate is required to be old, rich, white and largely male. Unfortunately, that entirely fictional responsibility is the only one they actually perform well.

So that’s the theory. By contrast, what The Senate actually does do, is almost nothing. And here’s why:

The filibuster/hold situation

A filibuster essentially allows any group of Senators to block a bill unless three-fifths of the Senate over-ride them. Thus it effectively creates a 60 (out of 100) vote requirement for any piece of legislation to pass. A filibuster isn’t just a vote against the bill. It stops the bill even being voted upon.

Some people believe that those oh-so-wise Founding Fathers created the filibuster in order to encourage thorough, constructive debate in the Senate. Those people are wrong. Senators need more opportunities to speak like the cricket needs more ads for KFC.

In fact the filibuster was invented accidentally by a loophole that was opened up in 1805 (details here). It took years for anyone to even notice that the loophole existed.

There is a misconception, largely popularised by the classic movie Mr Smith Goes to Washington, that holding a filibuster forces senators to talk until they either collapse in exhaustion, or become Jimmy Stewart. However in reality holding a filibuster simply requires a senator to announce that they are filibustering, leaving most Americans either confused, frustrated or more likely completely ignorant. Or in the case of Sarah Palin supporters, all three simultaneously.

But just in case the filibuster isn’t enough to grind the Senate to a halt, some clever geezer also invented “holds”. Thankfully, like most old-time senators, he was probably shot in a duel.

Holds are similar to filibusters but even more frustrating. While filibusters tend to feature significant proportions of the Minority blocking a bill, holds only involve a single senator refusing to allow the bill to proceed to a vote. (More here.) Any fruitcake can do it for any reason. And they can do it anonymously too. Not that you’d ever find a fruitcake being elected to The Senate, of course.

Why does the Senate need fixing

Amazingly, this ludicrous system has worked in the past because until recently Senators placed a premium on comity and bipartisanship. Realising that they have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the human race, senators only turned to filibusters or holds as an absolute last resort.

But over the last 30 years or so, American politics has become increasingly partisan. We’ve now gotten to a point where the number one priority of Oppositions is to defeat the president. If you don’t believe me, ask the Republican leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell. And when a Minority Leader’s number one priority is to defeat the president, and he has the power to thwart the president with filibusters, then minorities start blocking everything - and you start seeing graphs like this:

(Thanks to TPM for this graph that they kindly didn’t know I stole.)

There is a lot going on here, but the blue line is the number of filibusters the Majority tried to break. And the yellow line is the number of filibusters actually broken. This is not a good graph. Unless you hate America. And then it’s a very good graph. It tells you that there have been more filibusters broken in the last two years than there were between 1919 and 1982.

People might point to the enormous achievements passed by the Senate in the last two years despite the filibuster - financial reform, health reform, and the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ to name but a few. But this was a Senate where the Democrats held between 58 and 60 seats. The last time one party dominated the Senate this completely was after Watergate. Should America need a Richard Nixon or George W Bush-style disaster in order to get anything done? Oliver Stone might think so, but bugger him.

Also, take another look at that graph to see how many filibusters the Majority still couldn’t break, even with a supposedly filibuster-proof majority (climate change legislation and immigration reform are two glaring examples). Finally, note that the graph is only moving in one direction. Whether the Minority is held by Democrats or Republicans, filibusters are fast becoming the Pringles of being a legislative dick.

You see, the beauty of the filibuster is you can use it to hold up anything - every bill, every vote, every amendment, even the very act of debating a bill (they call this “filibustering the motion to proceed”). And if you do have 60 votes, it still takes three days to override each filibuster. So if a Minority knows what they’re doing they can hold up a piece of legislation for weeks, even if the Majority does have 60 votes. It’s like trying to negotiate with the world’s most annoying little brother.

But as dysfunctional as filibusters have become, holds have become even worse. These are just some of the highlights:

* Obama’s pick for the Federal Reserve Board has been blocked by Republican Senator Richard Shelby for over six months for being “unqualified”. Oh, did I mention he just won the Nobel Prize for Economics?
* Shelby also blocked over 70 of Obama’s appointees because he wanted a $40 billion defence contract to go to his state.
* Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu blocked Obama’s budget director nominee for months in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And why? Because she wanted Obama to reverse the moratorium on deepwater oil drilling that he placed after the BP spill.
* We have gotten to a point where Republican-appointed judges are writing their colleagues letters asking them to stop blocking Obama’s judicial picks because it is jeopardising the judicial system.

To describe this situation as “out of control” would be to describe Mel Gibson as “testy”.

How do you fix it?

Simple. Eradicate the filibuster and holds. But that solution might as well be “Buy me a unicorn!” if the bill to repeal filibusters and holds would be subject to filibusters and holds. Unfortunately, the Senate rulebook is of such brain-busting complexity that no-one seems to be sure if that’s the case. It’s a paradox worthy of a science fiction aficionado or a stoned philosophy student - often the same people. (For the record, this political scientist appears to believe the bill would be filibuster-proof. Then again, it’s tough to know - he writes in KevinRuddese.)

Thankfully, there is one day when everyone agrees you can begin the process to change the Senate rules with 51 votes - the first day of a new Congress. And that day happens to be tomorrow.

So what’s happening tomorrow?

Just before the Christmas break every returning Democrat Senator signed a letter calling for filibuster reform, so something’s going to happen, although it may take weeks to fully play out. There are many proposals being circulated, but the most prominent is by Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley. He proposes to make the Mr Smith Goes To Washington non-stop talkfest filibuster a reality. He also proposes to make it so you can only filibuster a bill once - directly before a vote (i.e. no more filibustering amendments or the “motion to proceed”).

Other proposals include banning holds altogether and removing filibusters on the confirmation of presidential appointments. You’ll note that no-one is proposing to flat-out ban the filibuster. Getting Senators to give up all their petty powers cold turkey would require a Trainspotting-style intervention.

But even these very moderate reform efforts could be moderated further if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid makes a deal with the Republican leader Mitch McConnell. It’s not clear if such a deal will happen, or what it would entail. But it is certain that it would leave everybody dissatisfied. Mmm… watered-down versions of watered-down bills? Tastes like The Senate!

Chas Licciardello is a comedian and member of The Chaser comedy team.

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