Monday, March 30, 2009

Return of the One Man "Filibuster"

Jonathan Chait, in an otherwise good TNR article, shows he doesn't understand Senate procedure as well as he thinks he does...
During the same time period, the Senate has developed a new, anonymous one-person filibuster called a "hold."
He's talking about unanimous consent. From the Senate's own glossary:
unanimous consent - A Senator may request unanimous consent on the floor to set aside a specified rule of procedure so as to expedite proceedings. If no Senator objects, the Senate permits the action, but if any one Senator objects, the request is rejected. Unanimous consent requests with only immediate effects are routinely granted, but ones affecting the floor schedule, the conditions of considering a bill or other business, or the rights of other Senators, are normally not offered, or a floor leader will object to it, until all Senators concerned have had an opportunity to inform the leaders that they find it acceptable.
In other words, what Chait terms a "hold" is really just an objection to a motion for unanimous consent. That objection can be easily overridden with a regular motion and a regular vote.

Senate leaders have been using unanimous consent to pass more and more legislation. Chait's problem is that a few Senators, led by Sen. Coburn of Oklahoma, have noticed that this procedure is being used to pass stealth pork: pet spending bills that they don't want debated on the Senate floor. Sen. Coburn and his allies have been reviewing each motion and objecting to the more egregious stuff, thus preventing their passage via unanimous consent. Some have characterized this as a filibuster, but as noted above it's easily overridden: the non-unanimous bills need only be presented on the floor for a straight vote (at which point they become subject to debate and, possibly, a real filibuster, but that's another discussion). In fact, Majority Leader Reid got frustrated with Sen. Coburn objecting to his pork, and bundled several bills into the so-called "Coburn Omnibus", planning to ram them through a floor session. Republicans banded together to filibuster the bill, and it failed, but if the bills hadn't been such obvious pork they probably would have passed. (I believe some of the more widely-supported measures were in fact reintroduced earlier this year and passed, but not by unanimous consent).

Eliminating the so-called one-man "filibuster" would gut the nature of unanimous consent. Imagine what it would be like if the Senate leadership could make any motion and, without debate or even a floor hearing, pass it over the objection of any Senator.

I don't think that's what Chait had in mind. He should study up on Senate procedure before calling for any more reforms to the uanimous consent rule.