Thursday, December 27, 2012

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley battles to limit rampant 'abuse of the filibuster'

Charles Pope, The Oregonian

By Charles Pope, The OregonianThe Oregonian

on December 25, 2012 at 12:00 PM,
updated December 25, 2012 at 9:59 PM

I saw Merkeley interviewed on MSNBC and he has 48 Dem. Senators on-board to pass this with 51 needed to pass it. 

The 7 Democrats on the fence are :

Baucus, Boxer, Feinstein, Leahy, Levin, Pryor, and Jack Reed.

They say they are for the "social contract" or "gentlemen's agreement" to eliminate the huge # of filibusters which was agreed to 2 years ago.... but Merkeley says the number of filibusters has only increased since then! If one of these 7 is your congressperson, it is time to contact them and tell them there is no 'gentlemen's agreement' when it comes to Republicans.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, with Sen. Ron Wyden on the right.Olivia Bucks/The Oregonian

WASHINGTON – Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and what critics call "a cohort of short-sighted Senate sophomores," are in an intensifying battle to change the Senate's hidebound ways and its most powerful tool – the filibuster.

Senators' use of filibusters has exploded in recent years, bringing the chamber to a screeching halt with regularity.

"The abuse of the filibuster has become rampant over the last few years," Merkley says. "When Lyndon Johnson was majority leader, he only had to deal with one filibuster. But in the last six years, Harry Reid has faced 386 filibusters as majority leader. Frankly, it's amazing that any legislation actually passes the Senate."

Not much does.

"The current Senate passed a record-low 2.8 percent of bills introduced in that chamber, a 66 percent decrease from 2005-2006, and a 90 percent decrease from the high in 1955-1956," reported a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

That's because of filibusters, the procedural move in the Senate that stops a bill from being considered. In the past, it was sometimes called talking a bill to death because a senator would claim the floor and keep talking to stop a bill from being considered.

These days, filibusters are easy. Talking is not required.

Stopping the filibuster requires a cloture vote -- a 60-vote majority before business can proceed.
It's time to change, Merkley says.

Merkley, a Democrat elected in 2008, says his answer is simple and preserves the right of every senator to block legislation.

The solution he offers will surprise anyone whose understanding of a filibuster is based on the old James Stewart movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." It's a requirement that a senator actually stand on the Senate floor and speak.

The minority still has the power to stop a bill, Merkley said in an interview. "But if there's a talking filibuster they'd have to do it in public."

That's not how the Senate works now. Today, "a senator can simply call in an objection and go off to dinner or even fly off to vacation," Merkley says. Yet once transmitted, everything stops until 60 votes can be found to break the embargo.

Filibusters are powerful because the Senate is designed to operate by "unanimous consent." That means a vow to stand fast by filibustering until demands are met or egos are satisfied is a powerful weapon.

The timing has changed, too. Unlike earlier eras when filibusters were used to stop amendments and legislation during debate, filibusters today are used routinely to block legislation from even reaching the Senate floor.

Here's a quick parliamentary lesson: Before a bill can come to the full Senate for consideration, the Senate must agree to consider it. Approving the "motion to proceed" does that. It's a minor step that historically was waved through by voice vote.

No longer. From 2007 through 2012, silent objections to the motion to proceed have been raised 130 times. Each one requires 60 votes to erase. By comparison, the number between 1971 and 1982 was 18.

Republicans argue they're forced to block legislation because Majority Leader Harry Reid routinely "abuses his power" by "filling the amendment tree," which means Republicans are blocked from offering changes if the bill comes to the floor.

"The only way we can get amendments is to hold the bill up until we get some amendments. And then (Reid) demands to know which amendments," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah said in an interview. "And then finally, he decides that only these certain amendments can be up. That's not the way the Senate should run. And it's irritating both sides."

Around it goes, with each side increasing the volume.

Merkley dismisses Republican complaints. He and a group of roughly 10 mostly new and low-seniority senators will offer a package of rules changes early next year that they say will streamline the use of filibusters and make the Senate more efficient. Reid has signaled that he's likely to support some changes.

That's not the universal view.

"There's a real good reason why we have these filibuster rules," Hatch said. "You start playing with those rules and the next thing you know they'll be in the minority and they'll realize how terrible the rules change was that they wanted."

-- Charles Pope

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