There has been a renewed focus on filibuster reform in the Senate—a welcomed development if it actually leads to more change than the compromise reached in January that preserved the onerous 60-vote supermajority. Since President Barack Obama took office, Senate Republicans have intentionally achieved an unprecedented level of legislative dysfunction, mostly because of their shameless abuse of the filibuster.
|In abusing the filibuster, Senate Republicans have achieved unprecedented legislative dysfunction.
Just to get a sense of how determined the Republican minority has been to prevent any hint of legislative progress during the Obama presidency, it’s worth taking a look at some of these staggering numbers. In 2009 alone, Obama’s first year in office, Republicans shattered records with 67 filibusters—twice as many as the entire 20-year period between 1950 and 1970. Less than two years into Obama’s first term, more than 400 pieces of legislation that had passed the House, many of which were bipartisan bills, were unable to garner 60 votes.
What’s astonishing is how effective just one senator can be if she feels like keeping a bill from getting a vote. By exploiting the filibuster and other procedural wizardry, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn (pictured above) has blocked or delayed hundreds of bills, including some that would have received a clear majority of votes.
Despite the media’s habit of assigning blame evenly to both parties for the legislative paralysis in Washington, it’s statistically irrefutable that Republicans are to blame for gridlock.
Especially frustrating to proponents of filibuster reform is that the conversation and media coverage surrounding the senate voting process has seemingly been recast by the Republicans in a way that implies the 60-vote threshold is the acceptable norm. It isn’t the norm or shouldn’t be.
This was on full display recently after Republicans successfully filibustered the gun background check bill that enjoyed 90 percent approval among voters. The headlines almost universally portrayed this as a failure for the White House and suggested that gun-control advocates who were simply outnumbered.
These are overly charitable interpretations of the facts. The reality is that 54 Senators supported the bill, and the Republican minority (aided by a handful of conservative Democrats) was able to defy the will of the American people and violate the central principle of American government that is majority rule.
The original intent of the filibuster was to serve as a last-ditch tool for the minority party to slow down the legislative process in rare instances of extreme overreach by the majority, and to promote more debate on a bill. But it can no longer be credibly argued that the filibuster serves in this capacity. It has become a crude political tactic employed with the express purpose of completely blocking legislative progress.
|The filibuster is supposed to be a check on majority overreach, but that is no longer the case.
Republicans have also demonstrated an unprecedented abusiveness when it comes to President Obama’s judicial nominees and appointments.
There are at least 30 more judicial vacancies now than when he took office, and Republicans have used the filibuster in virtually unheard-of scenarios, like blocking or delaying senior cabinet appointees like Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, among others. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) hasn’t had a director for seven years, even though Obama has a qualified nominee. But special interest groups, primarily the National Rifle Association, don’t like the ATF, so they’ve lobbied Republicans to keep the nomination in limbo.
All in all there are nearly 70 unfilled federal leadership positions at the moment simply because of the procedural morass in the Senate. Republicans have become so filibuster-happy that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell even filibustered his own bill last year.
Conservatives often insist this type of obstruction is necessary, and that Republicans are defending their principles. But make no mistake; this is a party that doesn’t believe in government, and it’s in their philosophical interest to make sure government doesn’t work efficiently.
The more they obstruct, the more their dire warnings of government inefficiency become a cynical self-fulfilling prophesy. But this is also largely about blocking the agenda of a president they have an irrational hatred for. Obama has easily won twice, and while the country is divided and doesn’t approve of everything the president is doing, voters have clearly chosen Obama’s agenda over Republican ideas.
Elections matter. Somebody should tell that to the congressional GOP.
Doug Daniels, a freelance journalist, is a former staff reporter for Campaigns & Elections. He is the author of the forthcoming memoir Sifting Through the Wreckage. \