Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Make 'Em Filibuster!

Massachusetts elected a Republican Senator, and the health care bill is dead. Cap and trade is dead, too. And absent any lapse in party discipline — and you can accuse Republicans of lacking all sorts of things (hearts and brains leap to mind) but discipline is one thing they have in spades — pretty much any item on the legislative agenda that matters to Democrats is, to put it bluntly, dead.

There's talk now about what to do about the health care bill. Press ahead, undeterred, on the understanding that this was always going to be a slog? Go back to the drawing board? Take the offensive? Blow up the Senate rules? Push the bill through to a vote before Brown takes up his seat?

There's one option I haven't heard discussed: the Democrats could actually require the Republican Senators to filibuster the bill. Seriously.
You see, nobody actually filibusters in the Senate anymore. The minority simply threatens to filibuster — and the majority, upon realizing it doesn't have the required 60 votes, abandons the bill, at least as currently configured. Per my unimpeachable source on the subject:
Today, the minority just advises the majority leader that the filibuster is on. All debate on the bill is stopped until either cloture is voted by three-fifths (now 60 votes) of the Senate. Some modern Senate critics have called for a return to the old dramatic endurance contest but that would inconvenience all senators who would have to stay in session 24/7 until the filibuster is broken.
If the Democrats truly believe they are on the right side of the question here, they should make the Republicans stand on the floor and drag out the debate, for several reasons:

First, if (as we hear) health care reform really matters to the Senators who support it, they ought to suffer through the "inconvenience" of a prolonged debate.

Second, if (as we hear) health care reform really horrifies the Senators who oppose it, they ought to be able to summon the energy to prolong the debate.

Third, if (as we hear) a significant objection to the bill is that it's been "crammed through" in a great hurry and without due attention to the weightiness of the subject matter, then surely a prolonged debate would vitiate that concern. For that matter — and maybe I'm showing exactly how naïve I am about Washington — the prolonged debate could yield insights or result in amendments that improve the bill.

Fourth, if (as we hear) a significant objection to the bill is that the public, and indeed lawmakers themselves, know so little about what's in it, then we all ought to benefit — understand again that I'm naïve — from a prolonged debate on the bill's merits.

Ah, Phutatorius: you dipshit! This isn't how filibusters work! It's not actually a debate. There's no substance here; it's purely a procedural stall, with one side reading the phone book and reciting "Jabberwocky" from memory. What's to be gained from keeping the lights on all night for this nonsense, when we can assume it all away, consistently with "modern practice?"

But now we're getting to the genius of the proposal (if I do say so my-naïve-self): Democrats can participate, too, and they can make their case on the "moral issue" of universal coverage all the more pointedly by juxtaposition. Imagine a scenario in which a Republican takes the floor, say, to auction off a date with his daughter, and then a corresponding Democrat rises to the podium and tells the story of an uninsured family bankrupted by health care costs and ousted from its house. After a round or two of this, the Republicans will have to make substantive contributions to the debate. If they don't, and the Democrats manage in the interim to make coherent and compelling presentations about the crisis this legislation means to resolve (yes, yes, naïveté, etc.), they'll come off looking spiteful and destructive. They'll look not-so-serious about an important moral issue.

Trust me: the GOP will be arguing substantive points on the floor very quickly. And the Democrats can, taking their turns at the microphone make their case as to why this bill, their bill, will alleviate the crisis. Indeed, with both sides committed to indefinite debate, we might even be able to go point-by-point, section-by-section, through the law. At this point the Democrats could make a second, economic case for the bill.

My point is, this ought to be a debate the Democrats want to have, and by promising to filibuster, it's fair to say their Republican counterparts are determined to give them that debate. If they debate well, surely the tide of public opinion will send one or more of the holdout Senators their way.

And if it doesn't, all this would still make great theater. That ought to count for something.


Mithridates said...

Nice idea. I really do like it. But perhaps Obama knows the bill as is is full of too much expense and bureaucracy that the bad outweighs the good of providing coverage to most of the uninsured. Obama can now say he pushed as hard as he could for universal coverage, but Congress and the people voted it down. Now they canc ompromise on a better bill that doesn't cover as many people but makes some of the obvious improvements we need. Just maybe.

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