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US politics: Filibusted

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COMMENTS

10 January 2011 10:42

Chas Licciardello is a US politics tragic and a member of the 'satirical media empire' The Chaser.

I was delighted to see Sam's thoughts on my filibuster article, if only because it showed someone had managed to get to the end of it. But I also think Sam raises some excellent questions. And only Q & A's Tony Jones gets to fob questions off with 'I'll take that as a comment', so I feel compelled to answer. I'll focus primarily on legislative filibusters here (this reply is going to be long enough without discussing judicial and appointment obstructions as well.)

1. Sam suggests that making the Senate a majoritarian institution would empower the president.

I disagree that removing the filibuster would exclusively empower the president. The current rules don't just thwart the president but all three branches of government. As of September last year, there had been 372 bills passed by the House that had yet to be considered by the Senate. That's just from 18 months! Streamline the Senate and you empower the House, because they can do more.

There are plenty of frustrated Senators out there as well. John Kerry spent over six months trying to strike a deal on climate change legislation, all to no avail. Streamline the Senate and you empower the Senate majority. Streamline the Senate and you empower everyone who wants something to happen (including the President). The current rules don't necessarily favour one branch of government over another. They're simply anti-action.

Actually, a correction. (That didn't take long!) One person would be particularly empowered by a 51-vote Senate, and that is the Senate Majority Leader. Power in the Senate would immediately become more centralised, as it is in the House. That is a disturbing thought for anyone who has noticed the similarities between Harry Reid and Emperor Palpatine. But I'm willing to take the risk.

2. Sam asks if I'd be as keen for filibuster reform if we had President Palin.

Let's face it, the American political system was built for gridlock. There are three branches of government, all of which have to approve legislation for it to pass. That's a lot of checks and balances. The norm in the US is for divided government — so nothing usually happens anyway. And I have no quarrel with that. There's nothing wrong with a conservative (small 'c') system of government.

This debate is about those rare occasions that the American public loves or hates a party so much that they award power to only one of them. It's occurred four times in the last 15 elections. And on those occasions, I believe it should be possible for the democratically elected government to do something.

I'm no Sarah Palin fan, but the bottom line is, if Sarah Palin runs for president and the American people elect her along with a Republican House and Senate, then Republican things should happen. That's how democracy works. And I'll be moving to another planet.

Furthermore, removing the filibuster not only makes it easier to pass legislation, it also makes it easier to repeal legislation. So if President Palin has a chance to institute reforms that are a disaster, then Republicans will be decimated at the following election and those reforms will be quickly repealed. But at least they'll have the chance to try something. And who knows, maybe Palin would prove her critics wrong' You betcha!

If you're wondering exactly how a wild, radical world with a 51-vote Senate would function, simply look to the first 200 years of American governance. Because before filibuster abuse, it was effectively a 51-vote Senate. They did alright then, didn't they' (OK, ignore that whole slavery thing). It's only really in the last two years that a 60-vote requirement has become a formality.

My concern is that the evolution of filibuster abuse is not finished. It's only getting worse. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell put it best in a recent profile:

"We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” [Sen. Mitch] McConnell says. “Because we thought—correctly, I think—that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan. When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that differences have been worked out, and there’s a broad agreement that that’s the way forward.

In other words, McConnell knows that by filibustering legislation you automatically make it (and the majority party) less popular. This lesson would not be lost on the Democrats. The Dems weren't exactly shy about using the filibuster in 2005-6. And next time they'll be even more brazen.

It's no coincidence that almost every Senate achievement since the Dems lost their 60th vote in January (eg. the New START treaty, Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal, the food safety bill, the 9/11 healthcare bill) has come after the election. The Republicans simply refused to let anything happen before November, for obvious electoral reasons. The fact that they let those bills happen at all is a minor miracle. My prediction is that next time round, the minority won't be so generous.

Essentially, the problem is that the current Senate rules require bipartisanship for anything to happen. But the political parties have evolved to become almost completely partisan. There's nothing wrong with that – that's how Australian political parties are. But our system doesn't require bipartisanship to work. And so, I propose, neither should America's.

3. Sam asks, shouldn't we be reducing the power of the President, rather than increasing it'

I haven't read the book Sam linked to about the cult of the presidency — I'm still waiting for the pop-up version. But I just don't buy that presidents are all-powerful. The media often treats the president like he/she can simply snap their fingers and things happen. But I don't think the Constitution agrees. All legislation requires the assent of Congress. And as long as Congress has the power of the purse, the president will simply be the world's most powerful petulant teenager.

The major power of any president is their ability to set the agenda, and to persuade. They have 'the bully pulpit', whatever that is. But that isn't a formal power – it's a recognition that people tend to pay more attention to the president than some random politician (unless she once was a witch). Therefore, the 'power' of the presidency is directly related to popularity. When the President is on a roll, everyone will fall into line. But when the president is on the nose, journalists and politicians will be tripping over themselves to either ignore or undermine him/her (see Bush, George W.).

The president clearly has more power when it comes to foreign affairs. But even then, they are still limited by Congress.

The only arena in which the president has largely unfettered power is in the creation of regulations by their Administration. But these regulations can be easily reversed by the next president. Take, for example, the way every successive president reverses whether federally-funded NGOs can promote abortion. This is why Obama spent two years fighting for legislation repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell, rather than just changing regulations. Legislation is a lot harder to reverse.

There is one area I'd love to see the president have less power, though — the appointment of judges. I have never understood why judicial appointments in America have to be political. Their whole judicial system is becoming like American Idol. But that's a battle I lost 200 years before I was born.

4. Sam asks, shouldn't we be taking on the revolving door between American government and big business'

Yes, we should. And I'm all ears as to how!

Well, that's probably enough replying. Thanks for temporarily distracting me from the fact that I am unemployed.

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