Arcane rules keep the Senate stuck in neutral

Most Americans are under the impression that Congress is governed by a set of rules that adhere closely to what they learned in their high school civics classes, including the basic principle of majority governance. Voters may remember something about obscure parliamentary procedures and secretive rules that skirt democratic values, but they still believe that the majority rules.

They're wrong.

High school civics texts are no more useful in telling students how the U.S. Congress works — especially the Senate — than my old high school copy of J. Edgar Hoover's "A Study of Communism" would be in telling kids about Eastern Europe. It's possible that the Senate was once a rarified — and dignified — institution of thoughtful debate and polite dissent, but it's now a deeply dysfunctional chamber where grandstanding rules and obstruction is a high art form.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., clarified the GOP's guiding philosophy back in July, when he declared derailing health care reform his highest priority. "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him," he said. Republicans have committed themselves to ruining President Obama's tenure, regardless of the damage done to the country in the process. So GOP senators use the filibuster — lengthy debate used to delay legislative action — to block any measure the president supports (except war).

But even if every Republican senator is willing to sign on to that destructive agenda, they have only 40 votes. So how can they block the president's agenda? The answer: It takes 60 votes to end a filibuster.

But the Democratic caucus has 60 votes, so what's the problem? Well, the problem is this: Democrats and their allies like grandstanding, too. If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid needs every vote of his 60-member caucus to "invoke cloture" — the archaic and insider-y term used for stopping a filibuster — that grants extraordinary power to any member of the Democratic caucus. And some of them can't resist using it.

Take the shameless and self-centered Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a former Democrat who calls himself an "independent" but who spends most of his energy frustrating the plans of his former party members. Lieberman decided he didn't like a Democratic proposal to allow 55-year-olds to buy into Medicare, so he refused to cast his vote to end the Republican filibuster of health care legislation. Without his vote, Reid was one short of the 60 he needed.

If Lieberman's opposition to Medicare expansion is based on a strongly held principle, wouldn't it have been enough to allow the bill to come up for a vote? Then, he could simply vote against it. (Lieberman's only animating principle seems to be puffing up his ego. In September, he gave an interview to a Connecticut newspaper stating his support for allowing 55-year-olds to buy into Medicare.)

But Lieberman and like-minded senators are relying on undemocratic methods, forcing supporters of a bill to find 60 votes just to bring it to the floor for debate. That kills the principle of majority rule — without the consent of the American public or the imprimatur of any constitutional convention.

The use of the filibuster has been "a rapidly growing abuse," said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank. "I think the far right of the Republican Party is more willing to be blatantly obstructionist. ... The Senate can't get it's work done," he told me.

While many Americans remember that conservatives used the filibuster back in the 1950s and '60s to bottle up civil rights legislation, it wasn't a popular weapon of the opposition back then. Its use grew during the 1990s and has soared since 2006, when Democrats won a majority in the Senate.

It's little wonder that average Americans have such a poor perception of Congress; some recent polls show Congress with a disapproval rating of a whopping 68 percent. It's well-deserved.

The U.S. Senate might restore some of its luster if it prohibited — or severely restricted — use of the filibuster. But don't expect that anytime soon. It would likely take 60 votes.

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.

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