Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Filibuster rules filleted tax hikes on millionaires

In Frank Capra's 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," naive idealist Jimmy Stewart uses a filibuster to oppose entrenched and corrupt forces in the U.S. Senate. Mr. Smith stands up to speak about American values, speak until his voice gives out, speak until he finally collapses of physical and emotional exhaustion in a heroic movie moment.

In reality, the filibuster has seldom been used for such righteous purposes.

For decades, a coterie of Southern senators made the filibuster synonymous with attempts to stop civil rights legislation. The award for the longest filibuster goes to Sen. Strom Thurmond, who prattled on for more than 24 hours in his failed attempt to stop the bipartisan passage of the Civil Rights Act.

In an ominous twist and at a historic pace, Republican leadership is now using the filibuster to block Senate actions well before the floor debates that take legislative proposals out for a public test drive and end with an up or down vote. And Democratic leadership has done nothing to stop or at least make Republicans pay for this obstructionism.

The latest example of this new virtual filibuster happened last week over a proposed tax increase on millionaires, known as the Buffet Rule. Polling indicated this widely discussed proposal was favored by 72 percent of Americans, including 53 percent of Republicans. On April 16, the Senate voted by 51-45 to move the bill to the Senate floor. That vote killed the Buffett Rule on the spot.

How is that possible?

In this era of polite esoteric rules, Senate Republicans—or Democrats—can say they are planning to filibuster and a proposal favored by an overwhelming majority of the American people and a solid majority of senators can die without so much as a whimper, leaving the whole issue only as fodder for the campaign trail and the cable channel echo chamber.

Neither Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, nor Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is willing to end this scurrilous use of threats-only filibusters. Neither is willing to reduce a supermajority of 60 votes required to end a filibuster. Democrats in the majority now are so afraid of being in the minority that they recently joined Republicans in a 49-to-46 vote to kill a proposal that would define the filibuster as standing up and talking.

Both Democrat and Republican senators have chosen their own interests over an openly democratic process, and they have made that choice using the cover of Senate rules. They should be ashamed.

Instead, they should be willing to stand up and debate on the very real issues that affect all Americans.

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