THERE HAVE been many occasions this fall for voters to shake their heads over the character of the US Senate. In merely the latest of a dizzying array of self-centered, unprincipled moves by members of both parties, a group of Republican senators chose to filibuster the defense appropriations bill.
When Democrats launched their own filibuster of a bill covering war funding two years ago, the GOP and then-President Bush claimed that Democrats were denying support to troops in harm’s way. Inside the Beltway, everyone knew that soldiers weren’t going to be denied protection because of the Democrats’ procedural move, but out in the country there was real patriotic outrage. A procedural shrug in the Senate caused convulsions in the nation.
The Democrats of 2007 launched that filibuster out of opposition to Bush’s troop surge. Justified or not, they had a direct problem with the defense bill. This year, the Republican filibuster had little to do with defense policy at all. GOP leader Mitch McConnell merely wanted to tie up the business of the Senate long enough to postpone a health care vote until after the Christmas recess. Then, he hoped, constituents would be so fed up with all the delays that they would lose confidence in the whole package.
In fact, the public has long since lost confidence in the Senate. Yes, one’s view of the filibuster rule that requires 60 senators to vote to halt debate tends to vary depending on which bill is being bottled up. Liberals had far less problem with filibusters when conservative judicial nominees were being blocked. But dissatisfaction with the Senate rules has often crossed party lines.
Whatever subject is on the docket, from war funding to Social Security to immigration, the public yearns for an orderly debate and gets chaos - plus preening by senators who seem too eager to draw attention to themselves. Only the Senate can fix the Senate, and it should start by reviewing its procedures as soon as the health care debate is resolved.