Imaginary filibusters again

Democratic leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives are becoming restive over the Senate’s inability to do business.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a group of interviewers that “the Senate has to go to 51 votes and not 60 votes.”

U.S. Rep. John Dingell, the longest serving member of either house, said in an interview that the Senate’s “undemocratic” procedures have made it a “drain on the legislative process.”

Assistant Democratic leader James Clyburn of South Carolina says senators “tend to see themselves as a House of Lords, and they don’t seem to understand that those of us that go out there every two years stay in touch with the American people.”

During the current Congress, the House has acted with relative dispatch (by Capitol Hill standards) on several issues only to see them bog down in the Senate. In some cases, such as health care, the measures eventually passed but only after being loaded down with lobbyist-driven changes. At this writing, changes in Wall Street regulation are being stopped in the Senate even though the Democrats have an easy majority for passage.

Dingell said a big part of the problem is the relatively recent (since 1975) tactic of imposing filibuster-like supermajorities on issues at the behest of a single senator without requiring the senator to actually filibuster (“The world’s greatest dysfunctional body,” RN&R, Nov. 26, 2009). That practice, which is an informal tactic of Senate leaders and not required by Senate rules, has become “a device where, very frankly, we are channeling senators to get goodies for themselves and their state in spite of the need by simply threatening filibuster,” Dingell said.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, as Democratic floor leader, can end the 1975 procedure at any time.