The Media’s Front Row Seat To A Senate Magic Act
That rumbling noise and ground-shaking emanating from the Hill this week is not a repeat of last year’s earthquake. It’s the rumble of senators returning to the Capital to take up their seats to watch a magic act.
It’s time to take on the filibuster and the news media is gathering around to see Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pull a mighty big rabbit out of his hat. There is no guarantee of success for Reid’s sleight of hand; it’s a very recalcitrant hare in there.
Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, in his recent story Is this the end for the filibuster? noted, “Filibusters used to be relatively rare. There were more filibusters between 2009 and 2010 than there were in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s combined….Today, the filibuster isn’t used to defend minority rights or ensure debate. Rather, the filibuster is simply a rule that the minority party uses to require a 60-vote supermajority to get anything done in the Senate. That’s not how it was meant to be.”
And it’s gotten worse. Now, senators freely invoke an arcane rule called the “motion to proceed,” which, in essence, is a show stopper before the show begins. On top of that, a call for the motion to proceed can be filibustered, meaning the rule to end the first filibuster—Senate Rule XXII, or cloture—can be derailed before debate about the debate even begins.
“The first thing is the most important thing,” Reid said in a recent Huffington Post interview. “Do away with motion to proceed. Just do away with it. I favor the filibuster. There’s a reason for the filibuster. I understand it. It’s to protect the rights of the minority. The Senate was set up to protect the rights of the minority … so that’s the no. 1 issue, and the rest of the stuff we can deal with if there’s a filibuster conducted. Those are the kind of things — if we get the motion to proceed out of the way, we can debate it, one, to cloture. That’s good. So that’s the no. 1 biggie.”
But, favoring the filibuster is one thing; getting rid of a rule that allows the filibuster to be used even before a debate begins, that’s quite another. The problem is whether anyone will understand the difference. Parliamentary procedure is a boring and arcane topic for many Senators—let alone members of the public. If viewers have trouble understanding the basic legal issues in Law and Order, how can they be assured of understanding Robert’s Rules of Order?
If the Post’s Plum Line is right, Reid almost has enough support on both sides of the aisle today, and most likely will have more than enough votes at the beginning of the next Congress, if all he needs is a simple majority. And therein lies the peril of the trick: If Reid’s strategy is to change the Senate rules to allow a simple majority to break any filibuster, the rabbit in the hat will turn out to be Senate Rule V—a rule about changing rules. Many a reform-minded Senator has failed at that trick, and unless he is extremely adroit, the majority leader will be no exception.
Either way, it will be a magic act to remember and one with major long-term consequences. Let’s just hope the press keeps paying attention.
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