U.S.A.: Filibuster: the 10-letter dirty word Democrats hope to clean up – By Mohamed Hamaludin

By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN

The Democratic Party controls the White House, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives and yet cannot pass critical voting rights reform legislation because fellow travelers Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, regarded as “moderates” in a party which has turned increasingly progressive, wield unofficial veto power through a political quirk.

The Senate is evenly divided but Democrats have a slim majority because the Vice President is also the Senate president with one vote, giving them a 51-50 majority. That should be enough for them to pass legislation not just in the House, where they have a majority, but also in the Senate, except for something called the filibuster. The word originated from the Dutch “vrijbuiter” or “freebooter” but came to mean “obstructing progress in a legislative assembly” or “political stonewalling,” Wikileaks notes.     

As the Brennan Center has explained, when a bill is introduced in the Senate, it goes first to a committee. If a majority on that panel approves it, the measure moves to the floor for debate, where passage is by a simple majority of 51 votes. But it takes a two-thirds majority or 60 votes to cut off debate. In effect, a minority can block any legislation. That is what the Republicans have been doing.

Originally, Senate rules allowed for ending debate by a simple majority. However, in 1806, then Vice President Aaron Burr described that requirement as unnecessary and the Senate stopped using it, the Brennan Center’s Tim Lau explained in an April 26, 2021, story. But that opened the way again for unchecked speeches, giving rise to the practice known as the filibuster. The Senate created a rule in 1917 that allows for debate to be cut off by a two-thirds majority.

There are exceptions, however.  In 2013, Democrats used their majority to eliminate the filibuster for hearings on executive position and judicial nominees except for the U.S. Supreme Court. Four years later, after Republicans gained control of the Senate, they made high court nominees also filibuster-proof.

Additional exemptions were made over the years, including Congress’ annual budget reconciliation process, fast-tracking of trade agreements, military base closures and arms sales. In fact, 161 exceptions to the two-thirds majority requirement were created between 1969 and 2014, Lau reported, citing an analysis by Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution.

In another wrinkle, since the 1970s Senators have been able to use a “silent” filibuster: When 41 or more of them merely threaten to filibuster a bill, the Senate Majority Leader can refuse to call a vote. That has become the norm.

With Biden’s agenda stalled, Democrats are under press to abolish the filibuster entirely or end the “silent filibuster” or create additional exemptions. Any of those steps requires a simple majority, which Democrats do not have so long as Manchin and Sinema withhold support. They insist on retaining the filibuster to encourage bipartisanship, even in the face of relentless Republican obstructionism, for example of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act.

Republican-controlled Legislatures have been changing their voting procedures to further entrench the party in office. More ominously, some of the changes involve not just run-of-the mill gerrymandering of electoral districts but also the conduct of elections and who determines the final outcome of the voting, including the selection of Electoral College electors who pick the president.

Still, Democrats cannot threaten to sanction Manchin or Sinema because, if either defects, they will lose their majority. That would be the worst possible scenario, especially amid growing speculation that they could lose control of both chambers in this year’s mid-term election – ironically, precisely because the inter-party impasse has been creating a perception that the Democrats are incompetent.

There is also the filibuster’s lack of fundamental fairness. Southern Senators, have notoriously used it to block civil rights legislation, including bills to outlaw lynching. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond spoke for more than 24 hours trying unsuccessfully to filibuster the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1957. The Republicans and the two Democratic apostates are following in their footsteps.

Also, Lau reported that more than 2,000 filibusters have taken place since 1917, half of them coming just in the last 12 years. He added, “Overuse of the filibuster magnifies problems of representation endemic to the Senate, where small and large states alike are each represented by two senators. However, the population disparity between the largest and smallest states has increased significantly since the founding [of the Republic]. Today, the 26 least populous states are home to just 17 percent of the U.S population. This means that a group of senators representing a small minority of the country can use the filibuster to prevent the passage of bills with broad public support.” And they are doing just that.

Abuse of the filibuster was seen recently when then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, population 4.5 million, rammed the confirmation of three Supreme Court conservative nominees down the throats of Democrats. The court’s new 6-3 conservative majority could endure for more than a generation. They will decide the fate of, for example, abortion and may even overturn the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 that ended segregation in public schools, because of a growing disregard for long-standing precedence.

A 5-4 conservative majority gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act by invalidating — 48 years later –the all-important Section 4 requiring states with a voter-suppression track record to obtain prior Justice Department approval for any proposed legislative changes. That is what has allowed Republican-controlled Legislatures to now run rampant over voting rights.

Senate Majority Chuck Schumer of New York, population 20 million, has promised to call their bluff around the time of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday on Monday. If he fails, the 50 Republican Senators can just sit back and watch the Democrats self-destruct as Manchin and Sinema do the dirty work for them.

Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who worked for several years at The Guyana Chronicle in the 1970s and on publications in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating in 1984 to the United States, where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times.  Though now retired, he writes a column for The South Florida Times (sfltimes.com) in which the above column first appeared. He may be reached at hamal1942@gmail.com.

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