Opinion: Filibuster corrupts democracy

In news coverage of last week’s defeat of the Senate gun control measures this central fact somehow got lost: A majority of 55 bipartisan votes somehow lost to a 45-vote minority.

The power of the silent filibuster to distort Senate politics is now accepted on Capitol Hill and by the press as normal and not worth mentioning.

ADVERTISEMENT
Let me be the skunk at this political garden party and say this stinks.

Representative government was not designed to work this way by the Founding Fathers. The political majority’s constant capitulation to threats of silent filibusters is piling up wins for an extremist minority in the Senate. On the failed gun control vote, the middle-of the road Washington Post editorial board called the Republicans who used their threat of a silent filibuster to win a “cowardly minority.”

That fits with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s accurate assessment that this Senate failed to pass legislation that has the overwhelming support of the American people, the support of most Democrats and most Republicans.

“There are very few things that 90 percent of Americans agree on,” Reid said.

President Obama called the Senate vote “shameful,” as he pointed to the clear public support for the bill.

The level of public support is not subject to political debate.

An April 4 Quinnipiac poll had 91 percent of Americans favoring universal background checks. A Fox News poll found 83 percent of Republicans in favor of background checks for all gun purchases. In other words, the American people are strongly in favor of more far-reaching requirements for gun buyers than was required in the defeated Senate proposal.

After the vote Gabby Giffords, the former House member from Arizona who was shot in the head in 2011, said the Senate’s failure was clear evidence of the need to “change the members of the U.S. Senate.”

Obama also called for voters to express their outrage. “If this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and enact common sense gun legislation then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters,” he said.

The call for an uprising of American voters also came from Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who represents Connecticut, where 20 school children and six adults died in a December massacre at an idyllic small town school.

“We’ve got to bring these [Senate] votes back to the American people,” said Murphy with a stunned look after the Senate’s failure to pass the bill.

But while voters can throw out a senator they cannot change the rules of the Senate and end the use of silent filibusters. That is up to the members of the Senate and the Democrats have a working majority of 55 votes. But they are afraid to do it.

To understand the historical extent of the massive political damage being done to the Senate’s ability to function it is important to consider that the defeated gun control bill was a watered-down bill.

It was a compromise fashioned by two senators, one Democrat and one Republican, both with A ratings from the National Rifle Association. The compromise limited background checks to gun shows, Internet sales and any advertised commercial transaction. It did not cover background checks for private guns sales, creating a loophole intended to remove any possible bureaucratic burden for legal gun owners giving a gun to a law-abiding relative or friend.

And it was not just the big bill that fell to defeat. A bipartisan amendment to the bill — supported by the NRA — would have increased penalties for illegal gun trafficking. That small nod to calls to do something about gun violence in America had been expected to pass with a simple voice vote. But it too went down, under filibuster rules, with only 58 votes.

A vote to limit sales of assault rifles also failed to pass in the Senate. So did a ban on the  sale of gun magazines holding large number of bullets. Again the polls tell a story of a Senate totally at war with the American people: fifty-six percent of Americans support an assault-weapons ban and the same percentage support a ban on  high-capacity  magazines, according to a mid-April Washington Post/ABC poll.

Last week the Post/ABC poll found that 70 percent of Americans think the Republican Party is out of touch with the concerns of most people and 51 percent think the Democrats are out of touch. An April Gallup poll found 79 percent of Americans disapprove of what is going on in Congress.

The sense of Washington being totally disconnected from the American people is not limited to gun control. An April Marist poll is one of many that show most Americans want elected officials to focus on job creation, not debt reduction. But debt reduction dominates economic discussions in Washington.

The heart of this corruption of democracy is the power of the silent filibuster. And like automatic gun fire, it goes on and on. 

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.