Wednesday was a difficult day for The American Independent News Network, which is the larger entity that operates The Iowa Independent. Our chief executive and founder announced two of our sister sites would close and their content would be moved to The American Independent.
Harkin: Public should be outraged at its ’19th century’ Senate system
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) believes the gridlock that has gripped the U.S. Senate in the past few years should be a major concern for all Americans regardless of their political bent.
“The American people have got to start getting up in arms about the way the U.S. Senate operates. We can’t continue an 19th century system in the 21st century,” Harkin said Thursday during a conference call with reporters.
Harkin was referring to the ability of a minority of Senate members to delay or completely block legislative action by use of the filibuster, derived from the Dutch word meaning “pirate.” Although it was initiated during the 1850s, and could previously be used in both the House and the Senate, it is currently only an option for U.S. Senators — and has been used extensively and repeated by Republicans during the past two years to block items key to the Democratic agenda set by President Barack Obama and Congressional leadership.
“I believe that the [Democratic] leaders in both the House and the Senate worked very hard to pass meaningful legislation, but that it was obstructed. Time after time after time the Senate refused to act and we got obstructed by the filibuster,” Harkin said.
When asked if that should have been a reason for Democrats to elect new leadership, Harkin responded that the gridlock was not a reflection on his party’s leaders.
“It makes more sense to get rid of the filibuster so that a majority of the Senate can act,” he said flatly.
“We are the only national legislature in the world where a minority controls what we do. The majority does not rule in the Senate. The minority has all the power, and none of the responsibility, while the majority has all of the responsibility and none of the power.”
Harkin has pushed for more than a decade for the rules in the Senate to be changed so that filibusters could no longer be used to block bills being brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote, and he renewed that call Thursday, saying the same tactics are what delayed civil rights legislation.
“Now it is being used to block any kind of meaningful legislation in terms of job creation, getting the deficit under control, extending health care to all Americans — it’s time to get rid of that filibuster. It’s not the leadership, it is the rules under which we are operating.”
Harkin pointed to the Food Safety Bill that was approved by his Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee a year ago “without one dissenting vote.”
“We’ve been held up a year on it, and even today we got 70-some votes to go to the bill … But guess what? I can’t get a vote on it. Why? Because there are one or two Republicans that won’t allow us to go to the bill.
“I understand that the American people see us Democrats being in charge and not being able to get things done. ‘You didn’t reduce the deficit. You didn’t do anything about getting unemployment down and creating jobs.’ So they hold the party in power responsible. I understand that. But, nonetheless, it is a fact because we were unable to act in the face of strict obstructionism.”
Current rules in the U.S. Senate, which were adopted in 1917 and amended in 1975, allow debate to be ended on a piece of legislation by a three-fifths vote. That is, if a senator believes debate should be ended and that an actual vote on the legislation should take place, a call can made for “cloture.” Sixty or more senators must agree before the body can move forward.
As Harkin noted, senators from the southern states used the filibuster to their advantage in an attempt to block the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Those senators brought all action to a halt for nearly 60 days as they filibustered the legislation. During the fight for civil rights, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond gave the longest individual speech on the floor of the Senate in history, clocking in at 24 hours and 18 minutes.
In the more recent past, according to Harkin, there were Republican leaders in the Senate who were open to compromise and negotiation — leaders such as Bob Dole (Kansas), Mac Mathias (Maryland), Bob Packwood (Oregon) and Dave Durenburger (Minnesota).
“These are people that we could work with because they at least wanted to move the country forward,” Harkin explained. “Maybe they didn’t want to move in exactly the same direction as Democrats, but there was room to compromise a bit. What do you do now when you’ve got a handful of Republicans that simply don’t want to do anything?”
Harkin pointed to statements made by Sen. James DeMint, who pledged “total gridlock” on any attempted legislation in the Senate, and Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, who said the most important thing to be done was to make sure Pres. Barack Obama did not win re-election, as proof of what he’s previously described as a “scorched earth” policy.
“I don’t know how you deal with that,” Harkin said.