Filibuster reform: “If not now, when?”

Filibuster reform: "If not now, when?"

By Ben Resnik

Grave-faced, his finger jabbing the table’s blue cover, Larry Cohen (photo) posed a question.

“If not now, when?” he asked the standing-room only crowd at the National Press Club. If Congress won’t act now on the will of the American people, when will it, and what was last November’s election all about?

Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America; Nan Aron, founder of the Alliance for Justice; and American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein headlined an hour-long discussion Wednesday on “The Broken Senate” and what its partisan gridlock is really doing to this country. The panelists’ message was unified: In their rampant overuse of the filibuster, senators are shirking their constitutional responsibilities for political ends, and they’re hurting real Americans to do it.

The effects are real, and immediate. Senate partisans are misusing their advise and consent power to filibuster the president’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; their obstructionism leaves thousands of workers with nowhere to go after being unfairly fired, and thousands of homeowners powerless when threatened with foreclosure.

Obstructionist senators also are undercutting the judiciary, leaving judicial vacancies intentionally open, hoping to wait out the current administration for one more friendly to their ideologies and letting important questions on the environment, consumer protection, and more lie shamefully undetermined.

And all of this from a minority of senators, who may represent as little as 11 percent of the population. It is a daily flaunting of the will of American voters, whose decisions on Election Day cannot now be translated into policy and a functional, collaborative government. It is stubbornness at its worst, the kind that hurts not just the naysayers but everyone weakened by the Senate’s unbalanced system.

So if not now, when? For millions of Americans, that question is hardly rhetorical, it’s the difference between a fair workplace or not, a speedy trial or not, a representative government or not.

The answer cannot be another political dodge; as Cohen and Aron explained, another “gentlemen’s agreement” to avert real reform can’t be trusted if the people making the deal aren’t gentlemen.

“We’ve had it with deals,” Aron said. “Everyone deserves an up-or-down vote.”

In a city where political debates often are awash in impersonal facts and figures, Wednesday’s panel was a refreshing reminder that the first duty of elected officials is to serve the public interest, not their political parties.