With the new session of Congress about to begin, the U.S. Senate has an opportunity to reform its filibuster rule, an arcane parliamentary device which has paralyzed the proceedings of the entire legislative branch of our government and crippled our nation's ability to meaningfully address the issues of our time.
Long before cable television, 24-7 news cycles and super PACs, the filibuster was created via gentleman's agreement and enshrined in the rules of the Senate. The filibuster allows the minority party in the Senate to require the majority party to cobble together 60 votes to take legislative action.
While neither the Constitution nor the law accord any weight to this rule, the Senate's unflinching adherence to tradition has preserved it for decades. Proponents of the filibuster believe this rule, created during the days of slavery, should bind all future sessions of the Senate in perpetuity.
Until recently, the filibuster was largely an afterthought, used sporadically throughout history in extraordinary circumstances. When it was invoked, filibustering senators could only delay the will of the simple majority so long they remained speaking on the Senate floor.
However, this has all changed. In today's toxic political environment, where collegiality has largely been supplanted by bare knuckle power struggles, the filibuster has devolved into a weapon routinely utilized by the minority party to thwart the policy objectives of the majority party. And both Democrats and Republicans are guilty.
Worse yet, in 1975 the Senate gutted the talking filibuster and replaced it with a silent filibuster that allows senators to bypass the chore of speaking ad nauseam on the Senate floor. Senators can now effortlessly invoke this faux filibuster from their arm chairs and sustain it indefinitely without any public debate unless there are 60 votes to override it.
The end result is that a supermajority of the Senate is now required to take virtually any legislative action. This absurd requirement was not intended by the founding fathers of our Constitution and few other functioning democracies in the world impose such significant hurdles to enacting legislation.
In today's hyper-partisan Senate, most of the legislation that musters the requisite supermajority support amounts to little more than watered-down band-aid solutions and pork barrel spending measures. With respect to the major issues that impact our country, the can gets kicked down the road and the public's will, whether conservative or liberal, goes unheeded. A change is long overdue.
Luckily, support is building to reform the fake filibuster. A proposal generated by Senate Democrats would reinstitute the talking filibuster. The proposed rule preserves the right of the minority party to delay and defeat controversial legislation, but no longer could senators invoke the 60-vote requirement without standing on their feet and sustaining a continuous talking filibuster on the Senate floor. If no senator is present to continue the filibuster, a simple majority could move legislation forward.
The topic of filibuster reform is not new business. Senate Republicans were on the brink of modifying the filibuster in 2005 to prevent Democrats from filibustering President Bush's judicial appointments. Regrettably, they ditched their plan after reaching a compromise.
This proposed filibuster reform shouldn't be mistaken as a Democratic power grab. No doubt it would expedite the confirmation of some presidential appointments, but any act of Congress would still require the approval of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Our democracy is premised on majority rule and open discussion of legislation in a public forum. When oppressive legislation warrants a filibuster, the senator invoking it should be forced to forgo a campaign fundraiser or two and saddle up for an all-nighter on the Senate floor in front of a national audience on C-SPAN. This is consistent with how the filibuster traditionally worked and would go a long way toward restoring our federal government's ability to solve the major problems of our day. The time is ripe to curtail super-majority rule and return the Senate to its intended purpose. Hopefully the Senate has the courage to do what is right for the future of this country.
Why can't they work together and compromise? It is a frequent question today due to the "fiscal cliff" headlines. When you, or your friends, ask that question it shows a lack of understanding of economics, philosophy and politics. Think about it. If you have a person that believes in God debating a person that is an agnostic, who is going to win the debate? If you have a person that believes in free enterprise debating with a person that believes in socialism, who is going to win that debate? If you have a person that believes in big government with more and more regulations plus higher taxes, debating a person that believes in smaller government, fewer regulations, more freedom and fewer taxes, who is going to win that debate?
The problem is emotion! Emotion replaces the reasoning and clear thinking of one of the debaters. When facts are presented, and historic examples are laid on the table, the only obstacle in reaching a decision has to be emotion.
When one debater states facts, and the other says "I don't believe that," what that debater is really saying is "I don't want to believe that." That is emotion talking! Facts are facts!
I believe the problem began with our inadequate educational system. Teaching students to pass a test; teaching "what to think" rather than "how to think;" taking heroes out of education so students no longer have goals to emulate; taking history out of education so the students have no basis for perception; taking grading out of the evaluations, and scoring out of athletic contests, so as not to "hurt the student's psyche." Our current educational system has led to a growing populous of non-thinking, non-competitive and incompetent adults that just want to "ride in the wagon" as we watch our great country in the throes of decline.
I am concerned to see exaggerated claims of abuse and predation on people approaching the ends of their lives. I have seen accusations of coercion and, yet again, claims based on ridiculous paranoia of “death panels” deciding life-and-death issues. What I have not seen are credible details of even one such case of criminality. The few accusations that claim to refer to specific cases or people have all turned out to be wildly exaggerated or just fabricated. Oregon implemented their “Death with Dignity” law in 1997, Washington state more recently. In those 14 years, in a state with about four times the population of Montana, only 596 Oregonians have exercised their right to determine the nature of their own final days. Just a couple of minutes looking at the nature of their experiences, and the scrutiny that takes place, should reassure anyone that there is no abuse there.
If this is such a heartfelt concern for some, I think their time and effort might be better spent making sure that the guidelines that might be established by the legislature contain sufficient safeguards for oversight. And, while they’re at it, perhaps they could focus their attention on the elder abuse that does take place in poorly monitored assisted living facilities and totally unmonitored private homes. Perhaps they could have a report prepared that shows the status of funding and support for elder care and proper regulation of it. If Montana can monitor and regulate manicurists to protect their customers (yes, there is a Montana Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists), it seems to me that we might be able to provide similar oversight and protection for our elders in their final days.
Those plans to strengthen our economy and sustain our unique lifestyle are formalized in two bills before Congress, the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act and the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.
Two recent polls show over 70 percent of Montanans, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independent voters, support both bills.
Montanans have done the hard work of listening to differing points of view and have proposed realistic solutions. Loggers, hunters, hikers, ranchers and anglers have come together in compromise. We have shown we can listen, understand and compromise rather than obstruct and file lawsuits.
It is now time for Congress to recognize the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act and the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act are made in Montana, long-term solutions that sustain both people and place.
Our delegation needs to see that these solutions become law.
The upcoming legislative session will likely see a new push to legalize assisted suicide in Montana. Your readers may also be told that assisted suicide is already legal, which is not the case.
In 2009, the Montana Supreme Court issued the Baxter decision, which gives doctors who assist a suicide a potential defense to prosecution for homicide. In the 2011 legislature, Sen. Anders Blewett and I introduced competing bills in response to Baxter, neither of which passed. Blewett’s bill sought to legalize assisted suicide; mine sought to eliminate the defense. During the hearing on Blewett’s bill, he conceded that assisted suicide was not legal under Baxter. He said: “under the current law...there’s nothing to protect the doctor from prosecution.” Similar statements were made by others. For example, Dr. Stephen Speckart testified that “most physicians feel significant dis-ease with the limited safeguards and possible risk of criminal prosecution after the Baxter decision.”
Legal assisted suicide is, regardless, a recipe for elder abuse in which heirs are empowered to pressure and abuse older people to cut short their lives. To learn more, see www.montanansagainstassistedsuicide.org
Assisted suicide is not legal in Montana. The potential defense to prosecution is, however, a “toe in the door” which could lead to legalization in the future. I urge you to tell your legislators that you support reversing the defense to keep assisted suicide out of Montana.
Sen. Greg Hinkle
I am confused by the ongoing dispute about whether we should legalize assisted suicide in Montana. I am a medical doctor whose patients include incarcerated persons. Law enforcement, jails and prisons are mandated to monitor for signs of depression and suicidal ideation, and to identify, intervene and/or initiate treatment. We are told that our failure to do so would be a significant breach of an inmate’s civil rights. Yet according to proponents of assisted suicide, patients also have a right to receive a doctor’s assistance with the suicide. This makes no sense.
On the one hand, you have a group of people (prisoners) who suffer from situational depression due to their circumstances. Suicide attempts in this population are not rare. On the other hand, you have a group of people (persons diagnosed with a terminal diagnosis) who suffer from situational depression due to their circumstances. Why is one group entitled to protection and the other is not? Is it because with the second group, you call it “aid in dying” because people are dying anyway? They may not be dying anyway. Doctors diagnoses can be wrong. I have seen patients in my own practice live longer than expected. What about an older inmate? Would he be entitled to protection or a lethal dose? This all strikes me as very Orwellian and also discriminatory to people labeled terminal. I thought freedom from discrimination was a constitutional right.
I have seen suicidal people get better, and rebuild lives that looked pretty grim. I do not agree that doctors or anyone else should be steering people to suicide in Montana. I hope that our legislature will clarify once and for all that assisted suicide is not legal in Montana.
Carley C. Robertson
Ms. Tompkins -- thank you.
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