Home / Culture and Society / Here’s A Thought For Filibuster Reform: Make Them Actually Filibuster Something

Here’s A Thought For Filibuster Reform: Make Them Actually Filibuster Something

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Senate Republicans apparently plan to drop their objection and allow a vote on long-hoped-for financial reform legislation — but not before they blocked the bill for a third straight day.

This is not the first time the GOP's pulled such a stunt. You might recall how its senators twice in recent months blocked the Senate from even voting on emergency extensions of unemployment and healthcare benefits for millions of out-of-work Americans.

Once a rarely used parliamentary maneuver, Republicans have elevated the filibuster to routine business in the modern Senate. Anything more than the most routine business requires 60 senators — not just a simply majority of 51 — to overcome a filibuster.

From 1971 through 1993, an average of just 19.1 motions to end filibusters were filed annually. That figure rose to 36 motions a year between 1993 and 2007, which doubled again just since 2007, to 68.7.

With nearly anything Senate Democrats have brought forward, Republicans have tried mightily to stand in the way. Democrats, in turn, are so frustrated that they have begun talking of implementing some form of "filibuster reform."

You might think that all of this is of no more consequence than some petty political gamesmanship, but you'd be wrong.

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former congressional staffer with 31 years of service, found that the filibuster escalation is causing actual harm to the regular business Congress must complete.

Titled From Deliberation to Dysfunction, Lilly prepared an excellent study of the filibuster issue.

“Increasingly, the Senate has been forced to rely on legislative shortcuts that severely undermine the philosophy of full and careful consideration of all matters before the body…Even so, the chamber fails to complete much of the work for which it is responsible and falls so far behind schedule in completing the work it does do as to seriously undermine the capacity of the entire federal government to respond in an effective and efficient way to the problems facing our country.”

Lilly also offered several recommendations to help get the legislative process back on track without sacrificing the prerogatives of the Senate.

Lilly is a seasoned and savvy legislative technician, and his proposed solutions were thoughtful and well-intentioned — but they ultimately miss the mark.

The word filibuster conjures images of plucky, defiant orators holding forth for a cause in which he or she believes, in a chamber rife with history.

Lilly notes that while most people think of the Jimmy Stewart classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the truth today is very different. It's been decades since a senator actually went to the Senate floor to engage in the extended oration that most people associate with a filibuster.

Instead, as Lilly explains, a senator merely must give notice of an intention to filibuster, for that filibuster to take effect.

I think, though, we would begin to see far, far fewer filibusters if only the obstructing party had to actually filibuster something.

What I mean is: Make the Republicans sit there, on the Senate floor, hour after hour, in order for a filibuster to be sustained.

Yes, yes, I know, there would be much hand-wringing, and shaking of conservative fists at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for the injustice and indignity of it all. Republicans would follow gamely, even defiantly, with unending speechifying.

But it wouldn't last. Have you seen a U.S. senator lately?

Even the ones who don't appear to be in their early hundreds aren't terribly tough and robust. They say politics is show business for ugly people, and that's certainly true at least to extent that our current crop of politicians do appear to as pampered as most Hollywood celebs.

Let's see just how grand the Grand Old Party remains after a series of all-nighters. Then keep the senators in town, and at work, over the weekend.

Worst of all: keep the Senate in session long enough to miss a few of their high-priced fundraisers in an election year. Now that might have the ability to concentrate their minds a wee bit.

Some might call my proposal overly aggressive, and say it threatens the comity of the Senate. Given that such comity is nearly nonexistent at the moment, I say, what do you have to lose, except maybe some sleep?

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About Scott Nance

  • Erik

    Harry Reid spoke for over 8 hours in 2003 (ironically, over the right to filibuster judicial nominees). Alphonse D’Amato for 15 hours in 1992 (over the rights of a small typewriter company in his constituency). But in-between, it’s been just threats and cloture.

  • Cannonshop

    Hmmm extending on #7, Handy, maybe we SHOULD NOT be passing so many bills, when the congressmen refuse to bother READING them before they vote. (Over 2000 pages, the president ascribes aspects to the law signed that do not exist within it. The man’s supposed to be a Constitutional Scholar, and we KNOW he passed the Bar Exam in Illinois and graduated from Harvard Law school, it’s not like he’s a construction worker or something…he’s supposed to be LITERATE and a “THINKER”, right??? just like the other 435 nitwits in D.C.)

  • Cannonshop

    Handy, the Republicans compromised us right into the mess we’ve been in for the last twenty years or so, and what happened to the “Filibuster proof majority?” I mean, seriously, you’ve got Olympia Snowe if you need that token Republican to call it ‘bipartisan’, don’t you?

    Of course, you guys screwed THAT game up when you back-stabbed your token Republican McCain…(Probably the best improperly labeled Democrat in Arizona…)

    The Democrats set the rules of engagement from 1994 to 2006, the GOP is just abusing the rules in a similar fashion, but more vigorously in your example-which should not come as any surprise. It worked, after all, for your lot.

    This is what you get when you rub the losers’ noses in your victory (2006 AND 2008 post election speeches by Pelosi, and Reid.) Mind you, I think it’s just fine to fix the Rules to prevent frivolous filibuster tactics, I just don’t have any sympathy left. (gave at the office, can you dig it?)

  • Yeah, Mr B, the Republicans are big on compromise lately, aren’t they? From the point of view of dedicated progressives, the Dem bills on health care and now finance reform are already compromises — Dems compromising with themselves and getting few if any Republican votes anyway.

  • Baronius

    Or, you know, people could try to compromise…

  • I should have said in 2007-10…The GOP have been doing this for over 3 years now. 59 votes is not enough to pass a bill!

  • John Wilson

    I believe that the entire privilege of filibuster can be revoked by a simple majority in the senate, but each side is afraid of losing it.

    Better would be to eliminate the senate entirely since it is so grossly warped and undemocratic.

  • In fact, the most recent use of the filibuster, just rescinded, was procederal in nature.

  • Cannon, the filibuster is now used as a threat for nearly every piece of legislation. The GOP in 2009-10 have used it twice as often as any previous Congress.

    Yes, if the rules are changed the Dems will have to abide by them when they are next in a minority. But requiring 60 votes to get anything and everything done is anti-democratic, small d.

  • Cannonshop

    Ah, yes, now that the Democrats have the majority, they’re finally willing to contemplate Filibuster Reform…now that they don’t need the old system as a weapon themselves.

  • David Roknich

    As we can see by the statistics, the current requirements for a fillibuster make it too easy.

    The justification for a fillibister is to allow a sustained debate, and the rules must be reconcilled with their original intent in order to prevent routine an increasing abuse by the MINORITY, so it not unreasonable to require that senators continue to hold the floor, or the fillibuster is over.

    This IS the popular misconception of fillibuster, and few people understand how frequent the abuses are, and then wonder why so little is done, and why the legislation passed does NOT reflect the will of the majority.

    David Roknich
    Galesburg, Ilinois

  • The legislation being put forward by the Democrats is nothing to get ecstatic about. True to form, what they have offered is such a cowardly watered-down version of what is really needed that it is hardly worth more than a halfhearted thumbs up. Essentially what they have come up with is a band-aid for a blood bath. I think it is revealing that even in this moderate and mushy form, the bill is too much for the Republicans to stomach. They want their “clients” to be given license to plunder our national treasure. You don’t agree with that? Then please explain to me what else could possibly be the motivation behind their opposition. It makes no sense otherwise. None.

    In recent weeks Republican members of the House and Senate – John Boehner and Mitch McConnell in particular – have been meeting privately with the big wigs from Goldman Sachs (among others) in order to kill any reform legislation. When McConnell tells us that the purpose of those meetings was to improve the proposed legislation (Let’s get real shall we?) that doesn’t even come close to passing the the giggle test. I was born very early in the morning, but it wasn’t this morning. These people no longer even make any pretense as to who they’re really working for – and it isn’t us. We might as well stop kidding ourselves.

    Tom Degan
    Goshen, NY