Procedure over people

At this writing, the U.S. Senate is still holding up an extension of unemployment benefits. This is a battle that did not need to happen.

The House acted on the measure quickly and then it entered the Senate where it has been spinning its wheels ever since, a scenario that has been repeated time after time on issue after issue.

The Founders wanted the Senate to be a place where legislation gets greater scrutiny and deliberation than in the House. Instead, the Senate has become a place where ideas go to die.

“We’ve tried and tried,” a melodramatic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid told the Washington Post last week. “This is our eighth week on this legislation. We are here. We’re willing to work.”

What he neglected to mention is that the Democrats in the Senate have had the votes to pass the unemployment benefits measure since it arrived but have been unwilling to use them. They waited until they got 60 votes in the Senate instead of approving it with 51 votes in the 100-member house.

The Senate’s leaders allow any single senator to bring a measure to a halt by threatening to filibuster. That triggers a 60-vote supermajority requirement. It takes 60 votes to reach cloture, the procedure by which a filibuster is ended.

But 60 votes is not needed to end a filibuster on the jobless pay proposal because no one is filibustering. Have you seen any reports on the evening news about filibusters of the bill? When was the last time you saw anyone filibuster on anything?

The Senate’s leaders concocted a system in which a mere threat of a filibuster will trigger the 60-vote supermajority. This “imaginary filibuster” procedure was invented in 1975 to keep the floor clear for other issues. But that rationale has long since been overtaken by abuse of the system. More imaginary filibusters have taken place this year than real filibusters in the last half century.

Critics of the system say the Founders spelled out when supermajorities had to be used, and everything else should be by majority vote. Senators respond that the Founders also allowed the Senate to write its own rules.

But there is no Senate rule allowing the imaginary filibuster procedure. It’s just a political leadership tactic that is not authorized by Senate rules. Sen. Reid can end its use any time he chooses.

The imaginary filibuster creates minority rule and undoes election results. A single senator can stop a bill. Forty-one senators have more power than 59. Democrats have control when Republicans have the majority and Republicans have control when Democrats have the majority. How dare Senate leaders play these games with the public’s election-expressed will?

These minorities extort the majority. That’s why the United States ended up with health-care “reform” that is adored by the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. That’s why climate change legislation never passed. That’s why financial regulation was enacted after the strong provisions were vetoed by Wall Street. In the unemployment benefits dispute, senators care more about their precious procedures than about the good people who are out of work as a result of Congress’s previous bipartisan financial deregulation.

Senate leaders who use this imaginary filibuster system are showing contempt for the public that voted a majority into the Senate only to see its will frustrated by the minority—and by the sanity-challenged rules of the Senate.