Thursday, December 16, 2010

Little rays of legislative hope

Could it be... past the fallout of a wipeout election, the grandstanding over tax cuts, the no votes on the defense authorization bill and inaction on the DREAM Act, now comes this small ray of bipartisanship over the civil rights issue of our time. Our hopes have been dashed before, yet it looks inevitable now that a standalone vote on the Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will happen this lame duck. Republicans like Richard Lugar may want to be on the right side of history; guys like Scott Brown want to get re-elected.

A possible DADT repeal this month is a welcome advance -- but it is also another in a series of sad examples of why the fillibuster has so fundamentally corrupted the Senate. Every bill now requires 60 votes to advance to the floor for debate, making 60 the de facto number needed to pass any legislation. This anti-majoritarian diversionary tactic, in an already undemocratic chamber, needs to go.

I was given another new hope today, when I saw that some Democratic Senators seem genuinely serious about amending the Senate rules on January 5th, the first day of the 112th Congress, to reform the fillibuster. This procedure calls for a simple majority vote; no legislation may be passed until the rules are passed. Tom Udall is confident they will be able to reform the fillibuster. I would like to be rid of it entirely, but even restoring its genuine character would be a huge improvement. Now, Senators can simply use the threat of a fillibuster to shut down debate. If this procedural trick wasn't available, Senators would actually have to physically hold the floor to prevent debate to continue. Tying the fillibuster back to its original purpose would be more in line with the great deliberative tradition of that Chamber, which historically was at times a place where people actually listened to each other, and served with honor and dignity.

One area where this problem has manifested itself most acutely is judicial nominations. This editorial expressed the crisis well:

As it stands today, there are 110 vacancies out of around 870 federal judgeships, with another 21 judges anticipating retirement in the near future. That's 15 percent of the federal bench currently empty or about to become so. Moreover, there have been fewer judges confirmed during President Obama's first 20 months in office than at any point since Richard Nixon was president. A bipartisan collection of retired judges recently penned a letter to senators complaining about how the antics in the legislative branch were helping to cripple the judicial branch, arguing that the "situation is untenable for a country that believes in the rule of law."

This backlog of cases, which is delaying fundamental justice for American citizens, is just another casualty of the fillbuster. Might these new rule changes also help us solve this systemic problem? There is some hope in my mind that, by restoring majority rule in a closely divided chamber, we can have people start coming together in the middle to do the People's work. Learn more about the judicial nomination backlog at this interactive website made by the American Constitution Society,

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