Tyranny of the Minority

Finally confronting bare-knuckle Republican obstruction tactics, the Senate on Thursday began to debate changing its rules for confirming presidential nominees. Under a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a majority of senators, not the extraordinary 60 votes needed under existing rules, could shut off debate over nominations for Cabinet posts and other senior administration jobs subject to Senate confirmation. Sen. Bernie Sanders wholeheartedly agrees with Reid. “With rare exceptions, a president should have the right to appoint his team to implement the policies he was elected to carry out,” Sanders said. What brought the issue to a head were the long-stalled nominations of Thomas Perez to head the Department of Labor and Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Republicans also have dragged out the confirmation process on nominees to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which they opposed creating in the first place, and the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces workplace laws they don’t like.

While strongly supporting Reid’s effort to change the rules on Senate confirmation votes, Sanders would go further. He would tear down parliamentary roadblocks that that have stymied the Senate from acting on legislation to address critical issues. “This country faces major crises. The American people want us to act to address unemployment and the economy.  They want us to deal with the global warming, health care, campaign finance reform, education, crumbling infrastructure and the deficit. But in my view, none of these problems will be effectively addressed so long as a single senator may demand 60 votes to pass legislation,” Sanders said.

Historically, filibusters were extremely rare. The Senate operated under an understanding that only in unusual circumstances would a rule be invoked requiring a supermajority of 60 senators to cut off debate and proceed to a vote on the merits of legislation or a nomination.  Today, the filibuster rule is exploited on an almost daily basis. “Unfortunately, since President Obama has been in the White House, the Republicans have changed the rules in an unprecedented way.  Now, a 60-vote requirement is the norm,” said Sanders.  “The majority no longer rules in the United States Senate,” he added. “In my view, given that Republicans have broken the longstanding gentlemen’s agreement, it is imperative that the Democratic leadership address the needs of working families and re-establish majority rule.”

Having once spoken on the Senate floor for eight and one-half hours to object to extending Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthy, Sanders respects the rights of the minority. “In my view, if a senator or a group of senators are strenuously opposed to legislation they have the right and duty to come to the floor and, for as long as they want, engage in a talking filibuster by explaining to the American people the reasons for their objection.  They should not, however, continue to have the right to abuse arcane Senate rules to block a majority of senators from acting on behalf of the American people.”

Sanders first made the case for even broader filibuster reform last January at the outset of a new session of Congress. “Most Americans grew up believing that in America the majority rules.  That is not the case in the Senate,” Sanders said at the time. “When Lyndon Johnson was majority leader in the 1950s, he filed cloture to end a filibuster only once.  Majority Leader Reid has filed cloture more than 400 times. The Senate is not the House and the minority party must be treated with respect and given the opportunity to offer amendments and make their case in opposition.  A minority must not, however, be allowed to permanently obstruct the wishes of the majority.  That is not democracy.  That is a perversion of democracy.”

United States Senate