Philip Uster Must Die
It is a common misconception that the U.S. Senate consists of 100 members, with the Vice President as its president and tie-breaking vote. Actually, there is a 101st senator that not many people know about, a senator who actually has the power of nineteen senators, who never has to worry about re-election, who has been around for over two hundred years but who only recently has begun to exercise his true power. That senator’s name is Philip Uster, and it’s time we got rid of him.
For the majority of his two centuries of public service, Senator Philip Uster has laid pretty low (with the exception of a key role in Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). He would rarely ever show up to Senate debates, called in only when the minority needed his help to defeat a piece of legislation they felt strongly about. He would do this by getting up and speaking continuously against a bill until he could either speak no more or the senators in the majority party would give up on trying to bring the bill to a vote. To get him to stop speaking so that they could vote, two-thirds of all senators would have to vote to make him stop. That meant a minority as small as 34 could call upon him to block legislation that as many as 66 senators supported. Philip Uster, for all practical purposes, had the power of 33 senators, enough to make up the difference between the minority and the majority. That catch, however, was that his power lasted only as long as his vocal chords, stomach, and bladder would allow.
During the Civil Rights movement, Senator Philip Uster was called upon frequently by Republicans to help them prevent black Americans from being granted equal rights. While ultimately unsuccessful, Uster managed to make things so difficult that the Democrats used their huge majority in 1975 to reduce the number of senators needed to stop Mr. Uster from 67 to 60, thus reducing his influence from 33 senators down to 19. The new number a minority would need in order to call upon Philip Uster’s services was 41. Adding Uster’s 19 votes to the 41-vote minority would give them effectively 60 votes, one more than the majority’s 59.
Weakened but not defeated, Philip Uster’s power continued to grow as the country became more and more polarized and the political parties more and more partisan. As long as the gap between the minority and the majority remained within 20 votes, and it almost always did, Uster could be called upon to block any legislation the minority opposed. As the parties increasingly looked out for their own well-being and decreasingly for the well-being of the country as a whole, Mr. Uster was called upon more and more to provide his obstruction services, his power increasing every time his name was invoked. Eventually, his power became so great that he no longer even needed to show up on Capitol Hill. Nowadays, a senator need only threaten to call him and the majority will simply throw up it hands in defeat.
There is always talk among the few who know about Philip Uster as to whether he should be retired. Occasionally, a majority frustrated by Uster’s ability to obstruct their agenda will threaten to reduce his power even further, or to kill him completely. Republicans threatened to kill him in 2005 when the Democratic minority was holding up Bush’s judicial nominees. Today, Republicans are using him to block dozens upon dozens of Obama’s nominees, but there is very little talk among Democrats about going after Philip Uster now. They know that one day (perhaps very soon) they will be in the minority again and they will need his help. This is why he has managed to remain in the Senate for so long—sooner or later somebody is going to want to have him around.
But the current state of affairs is more dire than ever before. The Republican strategy during the Obama administration is extremely simple: obstruct everything. If Obama supports it, oppose it. If Obama opposes it, support it. Even if you once supported it before, even if you proposed it in the first place, you must stop Obama from passing it at all costs. That means you call Senator Philip Uster all the time. And indeed, for nearly every single nomination or piece of proposed legislation since Obama took office, that call has been made. Even during the brief interlude in which Democrats technically held 60 seats, theoretically enough to overcome Uster’s influence, the Republican minority could find one or two of them to join the minority (Lieberman, Nelson, etc.) and thus hold the necessary 41-vote minimum to block legislation. With Scott Brown’s recent election, they no longer need to pull any votes from across the aisle, and can use the power of the 101st senator to block anything and everything the president and the majority party want to do to improve the country. The United States government is effectively being held hostage by Philip Uster and the Republican minority.
If Democrats actually want to get anything done, they have two options. One is to call Philip Uster’s arch-nemises: Rick Unciliation. Mr. Unciliation has the power of ten senators, enough to boost their 59-seat majority to 69, well above the 60 votes the minority has when using Philip Uster. The only problem is that Rick Unciliation is only allowed to participate in budgetary matters, and can only use his ten-vote power if the deficit will be reduced as a result. The other option open to Democrats is to kill Philip Uster, just as the Republicans threatened to do in 2005, through a process known as the ‘nuclear option’ which need not be described in detail here. It’s enough to know that if they wanted to kill him, they have the silver bullet needed to bring him down.
But the real problem, of course, is not Philip Uster himself or the Republican party’s insistence on using him to completely neutralize the ability of the American government to govern America—it is those things, but it’s also something much more insidious: the unwillingness of Democrats to do anything about it, lest they actually accomplish something positive for the American people. Like Republicans, many (if not most) Democrats are owned by the powers-that-be, special interests and giant corporations with armies of lobbyists all over Washington doing everything they can to make sure that the rich continue to get richer at the poor’s expense, that the energy industry continue to burn coal and drill for oil at the planet’s expense, that private companies maintain a monopoly over the health insurance industry at the average citizens’ expense, that the military industrial complex continue to build weapons and fight wars at the world’s expense and the expense of the soldiers, their families, and the countless civilians they kill—neither Republicans nor Democrats actually want to stop any of these things. Democrats have to tell their constituents that they want to change the status quo, but it’s this very status quo that keeps them in their jobs, that gives them an easier time raising money for re-election, and that in many cases guarantees them a lucrative position in one of these industries once they leave Congress.
Democrats can say, “We’re trying to make the changes we promised. We’re trying to bring about real health care reform, to regulate the financial industry, to fight global warming, and to strengthen the middle-class. It’s just that Philip Uster won’t let us!” If something terrible were to happen to Mr. Uster—say, he got into a bad car accident on the way to the Capitol—they would no longer have that excuse. They would either have to vote for a bill that would hurt the industries that fund their campaigns, or expose themselves as the corporate shills they really are.
It’s awkward enough for them to have to feign this absurd interest in bipartisanship. With such a large majority their inability to get anything done makes them look ridiculous. It was even worse when they had 60 votes to 40, rendering even Philip Uster’s 19 votes inconsequential. The only remedy to this problem was to profess a strong desire for bipartisanship, to work with the other party even though they didn’t need any of their votes. Obama and the Senate Democrats worked very hard to undermine their own progressive legislation, particularly with regard to health care and financial reform, to produce bills that were industry-friendly in spite of overwhelming public opposition to those industries. And even after all that unnecessary compromise, Philip Uster is still being called in to prevent even the most modest reforms from going through.
The Senate will never let Philip Uster go. He’s way too valuable to the powers-that-be, and they will protect him with everything they’ve got. The only chance the American people have is to learn his name and speak out against him vigorously and repeatedly. No one senator should have the power of nineteen senators. In a democracy, the will of the majority should prevail, and that majority should be accountable to the people for what it can and cannot do. Philip Uster is too convenient an excuse for the majority to remain weak and ineffectual, and too easy a tool for the corporate-controlled minority to undermine the principle of majority rule that constitutes the very foundation of democracy.
Tell the Tea Parties to step aside for a moment as we march on Washington holding signs of our own: “Philip Uster Must Die”
[Disclaimer: While the characters Philip Uster and Rick Unciliation are based on actual Senate rules, they are entirely fictitious and any similarity to any actual persons living or dead is unintentional. The author of this piece does not advocate violence of any kind directed at anyone with the unfortunate name of Philip Uster.]