Disclosure: I'm also doing paid work as a Fellow for ProgressiveCongress.org in addressing the necessity of filibuster reform in the Senate. The Fellowship is being supported in part by CREDO Action and Blue America. You can help support this work by signing CREDO Action's petition and/or donating at Blue America's ActBlue page.
I sure have to make a lot of disclosures these days. Well, I do make a lot of disclosures. Or repeat them, anyway. I guess I don't have to. But I do.
This time, it's filibuster reform. And I bring it up because filibuster reform is really something you could bring up every day, no matter what's in the Capitol Hill news, and never have to worry about being topical, because if you look closely enough, you'll always find signs of the long shadow that the filibuster casts over everything.
Today, it's on the "tax extenders" bill (H.R. 4213), which you may recall also contains unemployment insurance extensions as well, and was supposed to have been finished before Memorial Day, but wasn't and so benefits for those most severely impacted by the economic downturn are beginning to expire.
Now, normally a bill like this -- with not just emergency unemployment measures in it, but which is also chock full of business tax breaks -- would have been expected to move much faster, but yet it languishes. Why?
Well, let's start with the reason it didn't pass before Memorial Day as originally planned. The House took care of its part just before the holiday, and sent it on to the Senate. And as I said, you'd normally see a bill like this pass pretty quickly. But the political calculus of the Republicans is that any legislation passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Democratic President is a "win" for the Ds, and in their zero-sum world, therefore a "loss" for the Rs. And they can't have that. Or at least won't allow it without a fight. So they fight tooth and nail to delay and derail everything they can. Even if they can't ultimately kill a bill, delaying it gives them a chance to snipe at it, and as a consolation prize, deride the Democratic Congress as dithering and indecisive. How's that strike you, by the way? Criticizing Dems in Congress as slow to act... for having had to wade through the procedural slog of shutting down Republican filibusters, of all things!
So when this bill made its way to the Senate just ahead of the scheduled Memorial Day recess, the Republicans needed only to find some sort of excuse for throwing the roadblock of the filibuster up in its path. So they went with the old standby of being "deficit hawks" (despite having been noticeably AWOL on that score with regards to, oh, say... eight continuous years of off-budget war). Truthfully, it hardly matters whether there's an actual reason behind a filibuster. After all, it's been ages since a filibuster was actually about the thing which is supposed to literally define what a filibuster is -- that is, "extended debate." When was the last time you saw any of the people who insisted on voting against cloture actually show up to listen to and participate in extended debate?
At any rate, the fact is that the mere threat of a filibuster -- especially when the Senate is heading into a holiday recess -- is often enough to derail a bill temporarily. That's because even a bill that has overwhelming support in the Senate, and has more than enough Senators willing to vote for cloture, still has to actually go through the torturous and time-wasting process of invoking cloture. These days, Republican obstructionists are routinely filibustering even the motion to proceed to consideration of a bill, meaning they're filibustering the question of whether or not the Senate should even begin debate!
That means that getting to a vote on the tax extenders bill, even if you have 60+ votes ready to go, means filing a cloture motion (along with a petition signed by 16 Senators, which is never a problem), but then waiting for a full calendar day to pass after the day on which you filed the motion. Then, after one hour of session has elapsed on the second calendar day following the filing, your cloture motion is "ripe" for consideration. But remember, even if you trounce the opposition, all cloture gets you is the right to end debate... after another 30 hours of it! So now you've spent about a day and a half to get to your cloture vote, won the vote, but may have to sit by for another 30 hours before you ever get to actually vote on whether or not -- get this -- to begin debate on the bill!
But hold on, you're not done yet! Because now that you've spent three days or so getting to the vote on whether or not to begin debate on the bill, you're likely to face yet another filibuster on the bill itself. So even if you file for cloture on the bill right away, you're still looking at another three days or so before you get to vote on passing it.
Now, if you're backed up against a holiday weekend and a recess, you can see where that would cause some problems. Yes, Senators get the big bucks to stick around and do their jobs, especially when there are families in trouble out there who need this help. But it's no small thing for a politician to skip Memorial Day festivities back at home. Nobody wants to have to call the local VFW and tell them you're not coming to their parade. And who needs Republican press releases, blaring, "Senator Jones Refuses to Honor Local Veterans"?
And remember, even when there's no recess looming, the Senate is very often in session only 3-4 days a week, which can mean that a filibuster threat can add nearly two full weeks of time-wasting to any bill. That's a pretty costly investment to be forced to make on anything, and necessarily means less time will be available for other priorities. And that's not even taking into consideration what additional time you'll need if there are any amendments you'd like to get through. Even good Democrats will sometimes threaten to vote to sustain a filibuster if cloture means they won't get an opportunity to vote on what they consider to be important amendments.
So here we sit, in the third week of the pendency of this critical unemployment extension, because obstructionist Republicans were able to stretch this thing out over a recess with the threat of a filibuster. And the threat continues, now that they're forcing yet another cloture motion to bring the bill to a final vote, even as the very families most threatened by long-term unemployment have not only already been cut off, but are looking at the possibility of benefits that'll be reduced by $25 a month even if they do resume.
That's just the most current manifestation of filibuster abuse's impact on initiatives important to regular Americans. And remember, nobody has actually had to stand up and filibuster, either before the recess or since. Nobody has had to actually have that "extended debate." Nor is it even clear that they couldn't have gotten 60 votes to get down to business before Memorial Day. But the threat of forcing a cloture vote (or even two), was at the time enough to wreck everything for some very desperate families.