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  • Dan Connors

Schoolhouse Rock Lied To Us!

When I was growing up, I learned a lot about how the world works from television. One of the best introductions to politics was the memorable series Schoolhouse Rock, that put complex things to music and made it fun on Saturday mornings. Probably the most famous of these memorable shorts was the one on how laws get passed in America, called "I'm just a bill." Little did I know back then that this was just the first of many lies I would hear about the way things work in America.

According to Bill, ideas emanated from people who called their congressman who then introduced them as a bill into a long path that includes committees, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and finally the President. The the bill becomes a law. Technically this is the way it was supposed to work, but Bill didn't warn us about the filibuster.

Filibusters, or the requirement of 60% of the senate to agree to even allow a vote on most bills has driven this nation into a depressing stalemate. Used sparingly during the country's first two centuries, they have become a common standard procedure for the past two decades, blockading the will of the majority on a wide variety of issues from climate change to voting rights to health care. Where they once required the objecting senators to show up and hold the Senate floor, now all they require is a phone call or a threat, and bills die almost immediately. This change was made to make things run more smoothly, but it has instead made a mockery of the US congress and put a minority of 25% of the population (the 21 smallest states) firmly in charge.

There is nothing in the US Constitution about filibusters, but traditionalists in the Senate from both parties cling to it. Most state legislatures don't allow filibusters, and minority obstruction is almost unheard of in other democracies around the world. America stands alone in its love for the filibuster. The only substantial law passed in the past 20 years- the Affordable Care Act, only passed because Al Franken won a senate seat in Minnesota by 300 votes to give the Democrats a very short-lived 60 vote majority. Had that not happened, Republicans would have successfully filibustered and blocked the ACA.

The idea behind the filibuster was to encourage bi-partisan compromise, but that hasn't happened in our hyper-polarized congress. Senators are more afraid of losing donors or being primaried if they are seen as cooperating with "the enemy", so compromise has become a thing of the past, except inside of party caucuses.

And then there is the bizarre process called budget reconciliation. Thanks to complex Senate rules, certain laws can pass in limited circumstances with a simple majority, and this is the only way that anything gets done at all. The problem with reconciliation bills, such as thee one being considered in 2021, is that people try to cram as much law into them as possible because it's the only way to pass anything. Laws are not meant to be crammed together- they should be spelled out and debated, just as Bill and the founders would have wanted.

No one understands, reads, or talks about the actual issues in a reconciliation bill, just the price tag or the tax implications. It's a terrible way to run a country, and we deserve better. But because of the filibuster, it's the only way forward for anything of substance. Even worse, reconciliation bills are subject to a veto from an un-elected official known as the Senate Parliamentarian, who can decide if something doesn't fit the required process.

There are some interesting ideas in the Build Back Better bill now being led through reconciliation- child care, family leave, child tax credits, climate change provisions, Medicare expansion and lower prescription drug prices. There is a legitimate debate about how to pay for them, or any of the expensive things in all of the reconciliation bills that have added to our deficit. In a sane system each item would be introduced and discussed in separate bills and voted in or out by a simple majority. But in our system they are all crammed together without any meaningful discussion and fed to a closely divided congress where a few hesitant Senators and thousands of lobbyists can hold it up or cut it back.

Passing a bill into a law should be a sober, organized process with input from all of the affected parties- from single parents to retirees, but that isn't happening. If Bill were made today he'd be a huge stack of paper a mile high flying around the US Capitol with random congressmen and women adding and deleting things and nobody understanding much about what was in it. 245 years into its existence, America deserves better. Things need to get done and problems need to get addressed, which is kind of what democracy is all about.

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