Editorial: Reform the dysfunctional Senate too

The (Madison, Wis.) Capital Times

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., went to the floor of the chamber last week with a poster board that detailed the delays that the Republican “Party of no” has imposed on the legislative process so far this year.

The numbers were stark, and unsettling: Of the 40 weeks that the Senate has been in session, Republicans have employed filibusters to prevent action on critical measures — especially health care reform legislation — in 36.

“Only four weeks of this entire year have we not had stalling. Only four weeks of this entire year have we not heard ‘no,’ ” said Stabenow.

Is the Michigan Democrat being unfair? Is she mischaracterizing things? Is she a hypocrite who is applying one standard to Republicans and another to Democrats?

No, not at all, says Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who has been one of the most determined users of the filibuster and other delaying tactics.

“ ‘No’ is a wonderful word,” declared Coburn on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” Friday.

What’s the point of the strategy? Republicans, chirps Coburn, are saying “no to socialism at every turn.” In the narrowest sense, he is right.

Coburn discussed his specific effort to prevent consideration of the single-payer amendment sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is the only actual socialist in the Senate. Rather than permit a debate on real reform — as proposed by a senator who is not beholden to the insurance industry — Coburn used archaic rules to shut the Senate down. The Oklahoman demanded that the Senate clerk read the entire 700-plus page amendment before it could be considered. That would have destabilized the Senate for days, preventing action not just on health care but on defense allocations, job creation and a host of other issues.

Sanders pulled his amendment. He did so because, as he said, “As a United States senator, I’ve got to deal with the reality that a lot of people are hurting.”

Those are the words of a senator who takes seriously his responsibility to represent and serve the American people.

And what did Coburn say in explanation of his tactics? “The … purpose was to delay as long as possible this bill.”

Unfortunately, the Senate’s current rules allow a minority party, and in some cases a minority within a minority party, to makes elections meaningless. Even when a party loses, it is still able to prevent the party that won from acting.

That’s the antithesis of democracy, and it feeds a growing cynicism about whether it matters for citizens to engage and participate in the political processes of the republic.

The Senate will probably pass a health care bill at some point.

But, before they move on, Democratic senators — and, hopefully, some responsible Republicans — should rethink the rules of a chamber that has become dysfunctional.

Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern said something that was very important the other day — perhaps as important as the veteran union leader’s wise critique of the compromises in the current version of the health care reform legislation.

“After this bill is passed,” said Stern, “the Senate needs to take a very hard look at how it’s going to deal with the future in our country.”

Concluded Stern: “They have a process now that is not meeting the needs of the American people.”

That is a truth writ large across the moment. American needs to reform a broken health care system. But America also needs to reform a broken U.S. Senate.