The Bernanke Standard
Ryan Grim makes sense in The Huffington Post:
When it comes to progressive priorities in the Senate, there’s one standard: 60 votes are needed. But for Ben Bernanke, there’s a second standard: 50 will be just fine, thank you.
Democratic leaders in the Senate are asking colleagues who are reluctant to support Bernanke’s nomination for a second term as Federal Reserve chairman to nevertheless vote with them to end a filibuster and allow a vote on the actual nomination. The reluctant members would then be free to vote no to express their displeasure. Several Democrats have committed to just that and others are considering it.
The public health insurance option was stripped from health care reform because it didn’t have 60 votes. An expansion of Medicare took its place but it, too, was dropped for having fewer than 60. Both proposals had at least 50 votes. Dawn Johnsen, a nominee to head the Office of Legal Counsel, has the backing of progressive organizations, but a 60-vote threshold has held her up for a year.
This confirms what many “progressives” have feared for many years – that contrary to its stated aims, the Senate routinely interprets its rules in favor of the ruling class, and against the citizenry at large. It’s not limited only to health care – any bill which might, at one point, be said to cut into “industry profits” to the benefit of the body politic needs 60 votes to pass. Bills which clearly favor the military-industrial complex (Military commissions act, PATRIOT act, war spending bills, amnesty to telecom companies, tax cuts to the top 1%, etc.) need only 50. Given Mr. Bernanke’s recent term as Fed Chief, I think it’s pretty clear under which category he falls.
This, in turn, has to do with the byzantine filbuster and cloture rules under which the senate insists on operating. They basically get to choose in advance which bills need 60 votes and which can get by with just 50. Then, when the public complains, they can just say: “well, what can I do? Those are the rules!” Is there any wonder that we wasted a full year on health-care reform only to have it blocked by one recalcitrant senator? Is anyone surprised that Mr. Obama’s gargantuan $680,000,000,000 defense budget passed without a murmur?
There is a sickness plaguing our senate, but few seem willing to recognize it. It’s a more complex problem than many would think at first glance. For though I admit the filibuster has some definite uses (remember the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination?), it’s clear this procedure has been abused to the point of absurdity. Further, no one actually has to filibuster anymore; they just have to threaten to do so. Once you invoke the threat, senators have no choice but to scramble to find 60 votes.
Before, during the glory days, (see: Strom Thurmond), one actually had to stand up and talk for days on end: no breaks, no food, no sleep. This, I think, did more than its task in regulating use of the filibuster. Back then it was used for emergencies only – or at least bills that you strongly opposed. It takes a lot to convince someone to stand at the head of the senate and read The Lord of the Rings (or whatever) out loud for days (or even weeks) on end.
Nowadays that requirement has been dropped – all a senator has to do now is threaten to filibuster, and everyone will act as though he already had. And the threat is not so much to waste everyone’s floor time. The threat is to waste their campaign time. For, during a filibuster, the non-filibuster party (here, the “Democrats”) have to all be present. The party filibustering (“Republicans”) are free to do as they please – usually criss-crossing the country in their perpetual quest for campaign donations. So it’s directly in the interests of the Democrats to avoid an actual filibuster at all costs. That’s why they take every threat as the real thing and try to scrounge the 60 votes before it happens.
It’s clear the senate rules have warped far beyond what they were originally intended to do, but I’m not sure how to fix this. Perhaps the Supreme Court might have something to say on this matter?