Reid Vows to Change Senate Filibuster Rules

Highlighting the serial and continuing abuse of the Senate's byzantine to begin with rules by an obstructionist GOP, Senator Harry Reid noted that he's looking at ways to change the procedural rules that govern the Senate. Speaking at Netroots Nation over the weekend, Senator Reid bemoaned the delaying tactics employed by the Republicans whose modus operandi might be described simply thus: "to delay is to derail."

The story in The Hill:

[Senate Majority Leader] Reid said that while Democrats were still looking at options as to how they would change the filibuster, Republicans' use of the rules to force a 60-vote majority on most items before the Senate meant that a change was needed.

"This Republican Senate has started abusing the rules, so we're going to have to change it," Reid told liberal bloggers assembled in Las Vegas for the "Netroots Nation" conference.

"We do not have a plan fully developed yet, but we're looking at ways to change it," Reid said.

Frustration at the Senate rules and the frequent gridlock Republicans have been able to force peppered Reid's remarks to the bloggers. The top Senate Democrat defended his party's work in the Senate the past year and a half, but acknowledged that they might have been able to have been more ambitious in the pace and scope of their legislative agenda if not for Republicans.

"Suddenly, 60 is the new 51," he said, noting the new standard for legislation.

Senate rules allow individual members to filibuster a legislation -- in essence, continuing debate indefinitely -- unless 60 votes can be found to move to a final vote. Democrats control 59 seats, meaning at least one Republican is needed to advance a bill.

Reid noted that Democrats for a time enjoyed a 60-vote majority that should have allowed them to advance a number of priorities, but the majority leader argued that it was short-lived.

"Remember, we only had 60 votes for a matter of a few weeks," he explained, noting the delay in swearing in Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) last August. "60 votes was a very fleeting time in history in this country. But we did a lot of time during that period."

Still, a rules change would be difficult for Democrats to manage if they keep their majority after this year's midterm elections, in which Republicans are expected to make gains. Senate rules require 67 votes just to change the rules, meaning that a number of GOP senators would have to sign on to an effort that would undercut one of their most useful tactics as a minority party.

Reform of the Senate's rules, and in particular an amelioration of the filibuster, is a welcomed development. Still the greater problem is a design flaw that over-represents rural conservative interests and resolving that problem requires a Constitutional amendment that frankly that of as now is simply inconceivable. But even as the solution may escape us, the problem is real and growing by the day. Urban America's hopes for a more progressive nation are thwarted by an ever more conservative rural America even as urban America's numbers grow and rural America's numbers dwindle.

The 26 least populous states in the country who form a majority in the Senate represent just 17.8 percent of the nation's population according to the 2000 US Census. While these 26 include states like Vermont, Delaware and Rhode Island, of the 26 least populous states 15 voted for McCain and 11 for Obama in 2008 but if we go back to 2004 then 19 of these 26 states voted for Bush versus just eight for Kerry (OR, CT, RI, ME, VT, HA, NH, DE). The most populous of these 26 states is Colorado and the least is Wyoming with the bulk of the states being a mixture of Southern, Prairie, Mountain West/Far West or New England states. Of these four regions, three are overwhelmingly rural and conservative and account for 20 of the 26 states. The United States is not the only country with a legislative body that over-represents rural interests. Thailand and Japan have the same problem and not surprisingly suffer from many of the same problems that we do.

As the Republican Party is favored by rural and conservative interests, it too is overrepresented in the Senate though not to the extreme shown above. The GOP has 40 Senators at the moment but those seats represent just a fraction above 35 percent of the US population. Still that's an over-representation of 5 Senate seats, not an insignificant number in a hundred member body.

Given the over-representation of conservative rural interests, it should not come as a surprise that legislatively speaking such over-representation has a deleterious effect on the body politic. It is not an accident that the more populous but under-represented blue states subsidize the sparsely populated and over-represented red states. Research by the Tax Foundation found that states like Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico (the number one net benefactor of Federal largesse), North Dakota, South Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia consistently ranked in or near the top ten over in net beneficiaries of Federal transfers over a 25 year period covering from 1981 through 2005. New Jersey, on the other hand, received just $0.61 cents in Federal grants for every dollar it sent to Washington in 2005. Other significant net losers are California, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada and Texas.

Most egregious is the Farm Bill. That a farm bill should favor agricultural interests is, of course, obvious. But some farmers are more equal than others it seems. More than half the subsidies paid out from 2003 to 2005 went to just 19 of the 435 congressional districts, according to the non-partisan Environmental Working Group.

More than $10 billion in direct payments are made each year to primarily to growers of corn, wheat, rice, cotton, and soybeans based on past production, regardless of market conditions or even whether the crops are still grown. The payments are heavily weighted to the biggest producers, with the top 10 percent getting two-thirds of the subsidies. So while some 800,000 farms receive some level of subsidy, support is highly tilted towards larger agribusiness. In addition to routine cash subsidies, the USDA also provides subsidized crop insurance, marketing support, and other services to farm businesses. The USDA also performs extensive agricultural research and collects statistical data for the industry. These indirect subsidies and services cost taxpayers about $5 billion each year, putting total farm support at between $15 billion and $35 billion annually according to the libertarian Cato Institute.

This past week, Senator Reid pulled the plug on a comprehensive energy and climate bill noting that he did not have the 60 votes to move the bill forward. In fact, the bill's demise was predicted in a study (pdf) by Professor J. Lawrence Borz presented at a conference earlier this year by researchers from the department of political science at the University of California, San Diego found that the political system in the US was biased towards rural voters and thus made it much harder to pass any energy carbon tax scheme much less comprehensive climate legislation.

In countries such as the United States, malapportionment has resulted in the systematic overrepresentation of rural interests. Inasmuch as rural voters depend more on fossil fuels than voters in urban districts, we expect malapportioned political systems to produce lower gasoline taxes and lower commitment to climate change amelioration than systems with more equitable representation of constituents.

The study finds that rural voters tend to be more opposed to environmental legislation, as they are more dependent on private vehicles for transportation and must travel longer distances for work, household and personal recreational purposes, while the observable externalities of gasoline consumption, such as local air pollution and traffic congestion affect them less.

Is it a coincidence that the leading advocate for a comprehensive energy and climate bill hails from urbanized California and that its leading opponent hails from the more rural Oklahoma? It isn't just that Senator Inhofe is opposed to any climate legislative, but consider that in his view global climatic change is "the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on mankind." How does one even breach a conversation when that is his starting point? And yet Senator Inhofe's grandstanding obstructionism affects the lives of 36.9 million Californians.

Forgive me but I feel like I'm being held hostage by a science-denying lunatic whose views portend dark implications for the future viability of life as we know it. But how ironic that last month the National Weather Service reported that Oklahoma was the state most prone to suffer from extreme weather. One is tempted to note the poetic justice in this but it's not Senator Inhofe who will suffer the brunt but rather the 3.6 million Oklahomans. They, at least, voted such for an insane view but given our malapportioned Senate, we suffer equally the long term consequencses even as California enjoys a most pleasantly cool summer as Oklahoma bakes in a heat index that has topped a 110 degrees.

"In the United States, but not in England, the voters that are most harmed by high environmental taxes – rural voters – are systematically overrepresented in the political system," the Borz report states. "These results are important because they show that political institutions – specifically, malapportioned legislatures – can shape environmental policy outcomes."

Wyoming, the least populous state, has two senators per million voters, while the most populous state, California, has 0.06 senators per million voters. You would have add up the 21 smallest which are generally most rural states to equal the population of California, but those 21 states are awarded 42 senators compared to California's two. At the nation's founding, the largest state, Virginia, was just 12.7 times larger than the smallest, Delaware. Today, that difference is much wider and getting wider. The largest state, California, is now 67.9 times larger than the smallest, Wyoming.

In 1789, it perhaps made sense to structure a body based on equal representation for each state, which were then more like separate countries. But that logic has long since evaporated. As Dr. Borz notes "this institutional variation is the result of antiquated and idiosyncratic historical choices." It's time to redress them or the nation is doomed to suffer a tyranny of the minority because one of its principal institutions no longer reflects the broader popular will. The question is how.


Tags: Senator Harry Reid, US Senate, US Agricultural Policy, farm subsidies (all tags)


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