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 U.S. 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 in the US Senate.
And both Democrats and Republicans are guilty.
Worse yet, in 1975 the Senate gutted the talking filibuster replacing it with a silent filibuster which 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 which 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 which 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. Republican senators 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.
(Anders Blewett is a Democratic state senator from Great Falls and Bob Brown is a former Republican state senator and secretary of state from Whitefish.)