Filibuster Reform

Twelve hours, 52 minutes and seven seconds was the length of Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster on the Senate floor in early March (O’Keefe, 2013, para. 3). Senator Paul began the filibuster to block the Senate’s confirmation vote of John Brennan to the position of Director of the CIA (“What is filibuster,” 2013, para. 1). Paul’s filibuster was first since December 2010 when Senator Bernie Sanders held the Senate floor for more than eight hours in opposition to President Obama’s proposed tax plan (Grubaugh, 2013, para. 5-6). While both of these seem like never-ending speeches, they are dwarfed compared to Senator Strom Thurmond’s record 24-hour filibuster in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (“What is filibuster,” 2013, para. 4-5).

The filibuster is a speech on the Senate floor that prevents a bill from going to a vote. The word filibuster is derived from the Dutch word for pirate (“What is filibuster,”2013, para. 2). While the filibuster has been used since the early 1850's on the US Senate floor there has been a recent movement to reform the filibuster. Both Ira Shapiro and Tom Mann discussed the Senate’s use of the filibuster in their lecture “Can Politics be Fixed?” two weeks ago at Syracuse University.

Mann and Shapiro talked about how the Senate has become a dysfunctional branch of government because of the archaic rules and lack of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. Mann said that the filibuster allows the minority groups to bring government to a screeching halt. Recently, many political scientists have discussed the idea of reforming the filibuster in order to make the Senate a more productive branch (Mann and Shapiro, 2013).

The filibuster has been used over 400 times in the 112th Congress to block votes on bills that range from farm subsidies to childcare costs. Ira Shapiro said our current Senate will go down as one of the least productive in the history of the United States. Tom Mann said the current “legislative process has turned into strategic game not to solve a problem, but improve position for the next election to strengthen your hand.” According to both Mann and Shapiro, the filibuster is only one of the reasons why the current Senate is dysfunctional (Mann and Shapiro, 2013).

Political talk show host Rachel Maddow said the Republicans use of the filibuster, “is effectively changing the constitutionally structure of our government -- everything needs a super-majority of 60, instead of 51” (James, 2013, para. 8). The Senate’s rules combine with the personal motivations of American elected officials to prevent Congress from being an effective governing body. When arcane rules and bureaucratic inertia change the nature of American representative democracy without approval of the people, the reality of that democracy is fundamentally threatened” (James, 2013, para. 17 -23).

In early January Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the idea of revising Senate rules. Merkely said, “Senate Republicans have demonstrated that they have absolutely no intention of ending their assault on the ability of the U.S. Senate to function.” Merkely’s proposal would change the rules to end extended debate, which allows filibusters to occur (Klein, 2013, para 3-5). When a topic is debated on the Senate floor a minority of 41 Senators can vote or send in letters petitioning to extend the debate for an undetermined time. In order to end extended debate a cloture vote is needed. A cloture vote limits the time a topic can be debated, but requires three-fifths of the members of the Senate to pass. Merkley’s plan would require those Senators seeking extension of debate be present on the Senate floor for the entire period (Pope, 2013, para. 4-8).

Merkely’s original plan was rejected by both Democrats and Republicans, but in early March the Senate did pass a rules resolution that will limit the number of times opponents can use the filibuster and reduce the time spent debating some bills and nominations (Pope, 2013, para. 2).

The most notable change to the rules would give the Senate Majority Leader two new ways to end a filibuster. The first would allow the minority and majority leader to sign a motion with five other Senators to override a debate and proceed with a vote. The second would allow the majority leader to call a vote after four amendments of the bill are passed. The revision will only last for two years (Backer, 2013, para. 7-10).

Senator Carl Levin, co-sponsor of the rules revision said, "It's bipartisan. It will give great momentum to working on a bipartisan basis here in the Senate and it will get rid of the major roadblock that gridlocks this Senate” (Pope, 2013, para. 12). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “The Senate is simply not working as it should. I think it's progress, and we're starting on the right foot” (Pope, 2013, para. 14). Some Republican Senators endorsed the rule changes because “the rules change doesn’t really do a lot,” Senator Johnny Isakson said. He added that the changes don’t take away that much power from the minority. They just mainstream a portion of the red tape (Backer, 2013, para. 5-6).

Both Republican and Democrat political scientists and politicians have criticized the recent rules change. "The resolution is a baby, baby step," Senator Tom Harkin said. “It does nothing to alter the fact we have now become a de facto, 60-vote Senate” in which support from 60 of the chamber’s 100 members is needed to advance major legislation” (Hunter & Rowley, 2013, para. 4-6).

Many proponents of the filibuster argue that the United States was not founded on majority rule. It was founded on preserving the rights of the minorities, which is the main goal of the filibuster.

Political scientist Gregory Koger argues that with filibustering, bills must be created to appeal to a larger group of Senators in order to be able to pass a cloture vote, which usually makes them more moderate. The filibuster can also bring media attention to the topic being voted on in the Senate, as seen in Senator Paul’s filibuster last month (Marcus, 2010, para. 8-10).

According Koger, filibusters ensure that a bill meets a national consensus because “the Senate minority's ability to gum up the works requires that the majority and minority party haggle over the process for debating major legislation to ensure that members of both parties are able to deliberate fully” (Marcus, 2010, para. 8).

The filibuster is over 150 years old. It is a tool that has been used to stop government action, but it helps promote the rights of the minority party. There is no mention of the filibuster in the Constitution either permitting or prohibiting it. It is true that the United State’s current Senate has been one of the least productive in the nation’s history, but this lack of productivity is not only because of the frequent use of the filibuster (Mann and Shaprio, 2013).

The Senate is a branch of government fiercely divided by partisan politics. Bipartisan voting is very uncommon today. The current Senate has an approval rating under ten percent for the first time in US history. No matter how the Senate’s rules are changed there needs to be fundamental change within the branch. Senators must be able to work together across party lines in order to ensure that policies are passed to promote a better future for America (Mann and Shaprio, 2013).