The temptation, in the aftermath of what should have been, constitutionally speaking, the Senate’s approval of tighter gun laws, is to observe that we are not in Kansas anymore. But even that observation doesn’t adequately reflect the anti-democratic circumstances that played out when the Senate, in a majority vote of 54-46, endorsed the bipartisan agreement on new background checks for gun purchases, only to have the measure fail.
The reason: Senators are abusing the chamber’s filibuster rule, requiring virtually every measure to achieve a supermajority of 60 votes in order to pass. That rule appears nowhere in the Constitution; it is merely a creation of the Senate.
Thus, the question is, are we even in the United States anymore? What country is it when every measure requires the support of a not just a majority, but of 60 percent of the voting body? In what way does that count as democracy?
This is a dangerous game and, to be fair, it is one that Democrats have also played – and played again on Wednesday – though not with the grim consistency of today’s Republicans. They have set a new standard that, if carried to its logical conclusion, would mean that all legislation will require a 60-vote majority.
When that happens, there will no movement on anything substantive: taxes, spending, entitlements, the environment, immigration and on and on. Congress will be unable to do the country’s business.
That hasn’t happened before because senators used the filibuster more or less sparingly, with something akin to respect for the idea of democracy. That was then. Republicans today are held firmly – and, apparently, comfortably – in the death grip of the tea party, a fringe group that insists on having its own way in all things, regardless of the cost.
And, of course, the National Rifle Association, which is similarly self-absorbed, played its usual obstructionist role, perpetuating the lie that all gun control violates the Second Amendment and persuading – or strong-arming – enough senators to block action.
This vote shouldn’t even have been close. According to the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, the idea of expanded background checks has overwhelming support across the country.
Nine in 10 Democrats and more than eight in 10 Republicans and independents backed the proposal. So did nine of 10 Americans who live in households containing guns. What is more, nearly all of those supporters said they favored the plan “strongly.”
It should have passed, and by any sensible measure, it did, drawing significantly more than a majority of support in the Senate. But because of the misused filibuster, the outcome was corrupted. Yes became no, and a minority was able to have its way.
Democrats played the game, as well, on Wednesday, agreeing to the 60-vote threshold to prevent a simple majority from passing a counterproductive amendment that would have required any state with a concealed weapons law to recognize those of other states, no matter how lax.
However troubling the filibuster may be, there is some justification for it. Like the Constitution, itself, it can help block the tyranny of the majority over a smaller, but passionate, minority.
But what is clear from all of this is that the filibuster no longer serves a legitimate purpose. Worse, given the rancor of modern politics, it is a destructive force that will prevent the country from dealing with the critical issues it faces. While it may once have been a net positive to the country – in the days when senators wielded its power with discretion – it is now a net detraction.
The filibuster rule can be discarded with a simple majority vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been reluctant to call that vote, but he should prepare to schedule it unless Democrats and Republicans can agree on rules that place appropriate restraints on a power that is now being used wantonly.