Filibusters, Reconciliation, and the Future of American Democracy

Stan Duncan

This is a little soon after my last note and on a subject I usually don’t comment on. But with the health Care Summit and the president submitting his own watered-down Republican-sounding plan, and with the Republicans calling it a Socialist government takeover, I got reflective.  Filibuster Chart

I’ve been thinking in particular about the previously obscure procedure in the Senate known as a “filibuster.” As you know, the Senate usually passes items by a majority vote, meaning more than fifty percent. But when someone—usually from a minority party—is about to lose a vote, he or she can call for a filibuster, and suddenly it takes a “super majority” of sixty votes to call for “cloture” and overturn the filibuster. Here are the statistics: From 1990 to 2006 the average times per year the filibuster was called was about 70, usually for not very interesting reasons. In the 2007-2008 term—the first full year that the Democrats were in the majority—it nearly doubled, to 139 times, almost always by Republicans. That’s a 60 percent increase. So far this year, it’s been 75 times, which is more than what we used to call “normal” for an entire year. And that is why all policy-making has ground to a halt in Congress.

Three of the most frequently mentioned ways of returning the Senate to majority voting are (1) limiting the number of times a filibuster can be used per year, (2) limiting the number of votes it would take to overcome it (down to, say, 55), and using the standard Senate “Budget Reconciliation” rules, which require only a majority vote on important pieces of legislation. The Republicans used the Reconciliation process numerous times during the Bush administration when they only had a fifty-one person majority (for example for his controversial tax cuts in 2001 and 2003), so they are very familiar with it. It has also been the procedure used to pass healthcare legislation for over thirty years. COBRA, S-CHIP, and every major Medicare enhancement since 1982, are examples. Click here for Julie rovner’s report on this on NPR, February 24, 2010.

Muddying the waters somewhat, the Republicans have recently been calling the Reconciliation process the “Nuclear Option.” This is a term they coined during the Bush administration to describe their attempts to destroy filibusters altogether to keep Democrats from using it to block some of Mr. Bush’s judicial appointments. It doesn’t have much to do with using Reconciliation to pass important pieces of legislation, which has been standard procedure for health care legislation for decades. Evidently many journalists who cover our political system don’t have much knowledge of our political system and they haven’t recognized that.

So, having said all that, why hasn’t Harry Reid and the Democratic majority called for a “Reconciliation vote”? So far as I can tell, there are the top five reasons. My apologies to a variety of other commentators (especially Robert Reich) who have been saying much the same thing. And one note before I start: According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, if we do nothing, health care spending will take up one hundred percent of America's gross domestic product by the 2080s. Our elected officials created this mess; Satan has clean hands on this one. See the chart below and click here to go to an article in the Atlantic about their statistics.
1. Reconciliation is too important a measure to use on a piece of legislation so important.
Well, remember that President Bush used it for his important and controversial tax cut bills. In 2003 he actually only got 50 votes, forcing Vice President Cheney to cast the deciding vote. And remember the S-CHIPs bill, Medicare Advantage, and COBRA (the “R” in COBRA stands for “Reconciliation”). Shouldn’t these acts be considered “important”?

2. Use of reconciliation would make Senate Republicans mad.
Um, and the point is? When someone says this, do they mean the Republicans who wouldn’t vote for it anyway? Or the Republicans who wouldn’t vote for it anyway? I have trouble telling the two apart.

3. The Senate shouldn’t get too controversial because President Obama needs Republican votes on military policy.
I heard this on CNBC this morning and I don’t understand it. The majority of Republicans are always going to support the majority of wars, and what are the odds that the Republicans are going to call for a filibuster, forcing a sixty-vote super majority vote for something that the majority of them support? Imagine what Rush Limbaugh would call them if they blocked making war on a foreign country.

4. Reid has privately been saying that he fears he can’t even get 51 votes in the Senate now, after Scott Brown’s win.
Most estimates say he has about fifty-five or six votes for anything on healthcare. So, if he means that, he’s a coward; if he doesn’t mean it, he’s lying. If Harry Reid can’t lead a thirsty horse to water, then he can’t lead at all.

5. Some representatives argue that they are afraid to take a vote on health care until after the elections because the public is against it.
Not true. Most of the polls say that if you take away the rhetoric and just present the specific planks of the health care bills, most Americans support them. What they don’t support is what the Republicans have been saying is in the bills, not what is actually in them. And I suspect that now, when most insurance companies are jacking up their rates to unconscionable levels, even more people will be ready for reform.

Nobody has asked for my advice, but just in case somebody does, I’d argue for the president doing what the American people want and need to have done. I would push Harry Reid to bring back democracy. And I would ask people of faith to write their representatives telling them who put them in office. Remind them that the three most important parts of Jesus’ ministry were poverty, food security, and health care. We can’t afford to let one third of his ministry slide away for the third time in seventy years.


For the UCC health Care Reform page and calls to action, click here.

For a good description of Republican Health Care Plans and a great side-by-side comparison with Democratic plans from, click here.

If you are on Facebook, click here to sign a petition to get Harry Reid to become a leader again and call for a reconciliation vote on health care.

If you have Twitter (please tell me you don’t, but if you do) click here to send an automatic tweet that says, “Goodbye "filibuster-proof" majority. Tell Dems: Use reconciliation to pass public option.”

A Prayer for Health Care Reform
(from “Faithful Reform in Health Care”)
In the presence of all that is holy within and around us, and in the sacred bonds of our common humanity, we give thanks for the life that we share and for our calling to care for each other.  We remember our brothers and sisters who suffer or die for lack of needed health care. We confess that we have fallen short in caring for every member of our human family, and that in spite of our abundant resources we have failed to ensure that all may receive the health care they need for the life that is intended for every person. So we pray for forgiveness… for hearts that have been slow to feel another’s pain… for hands that have been still when a healing touch was needed… and for voices that have remained silent while millions suffer for lack of needed health care. May the valleys and the burdens of sickness and disease be conquered as we raise our voices of faith to the simple, moral, and merciful imperative of meeting one another’s health care needs.  Amen.

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