Since 2007, there has been a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a slim majority of 51-49 took over in the Senate (although Senators Tim Johnson and Robert Byrd were often unavailable.) Consequently, the Neoconservative Obstructionist Party began to use the filibuster to shut down legislation. The filibuster requires that the majority party or any group wishing to pass legislation in the Senate can be forced to produce 60 votes to shut down a filibuster. Only after a cloture motion is filed and a 60-Senator vote passes can the legislation itself be voted on.
Using this technique, the Republicans were able to delay the minimum wage bill, and shut down further legislation on over 142 occasions. In some cases, the Democratic Senate, would file a cloture motion and get the necessary 60 Senate votes to close off debate and have a vote. Sometimes, as in the case of some of the health care reform debates, they could not get the necessary votes to close debate and vote on the bill.
After the Democratic Senate took over in January of 2007, and had a slim majority of 51-49, the Republicans filibustered 40 times by that July. Forty times the Republicans filibustered bills in less than 6 months. A Republican Senator told Democratic Senator Keith Conrad of North Dakota that it was a deliberate strategy on the part of Republican leadership to prevent the passage of any popular legislation by the Democrats.
By December of 2007, the Republican obstructionist senators in the 110th Congress had put forward 62 filibusters which was a new record. By the end of the 110th Congress, the Republicans had filibustered 142 times not only a record but a record by more than 60. Sixty filibusters was almost the entire total for the 109th Congress.
Cloture, or the act of ending a filibuster so that a vote can be taken on a piece of legislation, is filed by motion of the majority party. In many cases, the Democrats had to file for cloture and go through the time-consuming procedure simply because of the huge number of amendments and endless debate that Republicans carried on to extend debate and keep Congress from enacting laws.
If all this obstruction were not enough, Senator Jim DeMint, Republican Senator from South Carolina, used an obscure and rare Senatorial objection, a procedure that put a hold on the President’s nominee for the head of the Transporatation Security Agency, Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and counter terrorism expert. Southers is African-American. DeMint is from South Carolina. DeMint says that he put the hold on because Southers will not commit to whether or not he will make the agency employees union workers.
DeMint has not put a hold on any Caucasian appointees of any department so far as we can determine. And since Senators have no relevant input on how a government agency manages its day-to-day employee relations, racism is the only logical reason why DeMint would hold up this essential anti-terrorism appointment of an exceptionally qualified African-American. Is Senator DeMint being profiled, as a white-southern politician? It should be pointed out that, without citing any specifics, DeMint, from the same area as Strom Thurmond, the hyper-racist segregationist, said that he wanted to “destroy” the programs of President Barack Obama, who is also, obviously, African-American.
It is no wonder that we cannot get anything done in this country. The Republicans respond to only one legislative program. That program has always been the same for this crop of current Neoconservatives. They would cut services to middle and lower income Americans while further reducing taxes on wealthy Americans. It should not even be a question any longer that Americans understand how much wealth has shifted in this country to the hugely wealthy.
Let us suppose that you are an average American and you pay $20,000 in taxes on an income of $100,000. After deductions let us say, you actually pay one-fifth of your income. How does that compare to an investment banker, a hedge fund manager or some other top financial executive who pays either 15% or, in some cases, nothing. So let us say that he or she makes $5 million. At most his or her income taxes will be $750,000 but will more than likely be somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000 or less. With tax rates that low, and with corporate taxes even lower or often not even due because of restrictions and deductions and allowances…it is clear that huge amounts of money go directly into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans in an ever-increasing share of wealth.
So what can we do? We can pass legislation that taxes at a much higher rate those people who make very arbitrarily determined salaries and bonuses of those at the top end of the income ladder. That will begin to balance revenues with cost cutting in our government and will take these people out of the rarified air of near-nobility. These are the kinds of people who show no embarrassment when discussing the murals painted on the walls of their marble-floored, multiple-car garages. But they will vote for Senators who will insure that they may continue to arbitrarily pay themselves incomes that are as much as 500 times the incomes of the average employees in their companies.
The best possible outcome would be for the Senate to declare that they will take the “nuclear” option regarding filibusters and cloture votes right now. The nuclear option, first suggested in that name by Senator Frist of Tennessee when he was the majority leader in the Bush Administration, is simply the idea that the Senate would, as it can, revert to simple parliamentary rules of procedure. This would enable those in the majority to pass bills by shutting down endless debate and voting on a simple majority, or, in this case 51 Senators rather than 60.
Perhaps it will not be necessary to go this far. But it can be done. It has been established by legislation and by the precedent of over a hundred years in the Senate, that it may, if it decides, set new rules each time a new Congress session begins. Therefore, a new Congress, the 111th could have rules that will call for a simple majority on all bills, if the Republicans continue to filibuster virtually every bill that they find the least controversial.
By simply changing the rules of the senate, they could force the Republicans to try to petition the Supreme Court for a decision. The most knowledgeable scholars on American governmental parliamentary procedure say that there is virtually no case at all for restricting the vote to the current set of rules. The Republicans would lose.
Now is the time to make the move to a simple majority vote for passage of legislation in the United States Senate. Elections have consequences for both political parties. No matter how fervent or how dedicated or how conscientious a Senator may be…or how well paid by lobbyists…the will of the majority must not be flaunted or democracy itself is useless.
We are not stuck in some immutable set of rules. Our Senators can reflect our values. We have 59 Democratic Senators and we must make sure that they know we want each and every one of those votes, whether it be 51 or 55 or 59 to count. None of us vote to have an artificial number of Senators hold up the will of the majority for a procedural rule that helps inaction more than anything else.