Sunday, January 23, 2011

Filibuster Reform in the Senate- A good idea?

Amidst the vast changes begun to be enacted in Washington D.C. as a result of the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in the historic midterm elections, (earmark reform and the largely symbolic "repeal" of Obamacare comes to mind), was one more obscure in the upper chamber  that seemingly takes a degree in 'History of U.S. Senate Rules' to understand. 

We are talking of course about reform of the "Filibuster," that staid practice of old popularized by the Frank Capra political charmer and one of my favorite movies of all time, "Mr. Smith goes to Washington."  You know, that practice where one Senator, any Senator, can, at least in theory, take the floor of the U.S. Senate and talk 'til the cows come home,' (something perhaps taken too literally by uber liberal 'Independent' Senator Bernie Sanders from the State of Vermont recently, for more info click here).

The question is, should the filibuster be ended, or at least significantly reformed, under the premise that it unduly restricts the ability of the Senate to complete its work and gives the minority party too much power to play politics with a virtually unlimited ability to obstruct important legislation for often purely political reasons?

NOTE:  Although new readers to this blog may due to a perceived frequent agreement with the "Republican" point of view wrongly infer we are a "Republican" organization-- regardless of the fact  our perspective on political and societal issues may at times coincide with views of the Republican party-- we are not officially affiliated with the Republican party or, for that matter, any other partisan group or party.  Rather, we are governed by our own independent judgment and the official and non-partisan mission of the ACLP to foster debate and discourse among individuals and American institutions on issues of vast import to the body politic as a whole.  Indeed, we do not believe that such issues as the impact on privacy and freedom of speech that the new internet protocol ipv6 may pose, the U.S. Constitution, or Dr. Martin Luther King's dream for racial equality are "Republican" or "Democratic" issues, (all recent topics for discussion posted on this blog).  Thus, if you are a person slavishly devoted to just the "Republican" or "Democratic" parties, or for that matter, any other particular platform or ideology instead of a discussion of "ideas," you are likely to find yourself frequently disappointed by many of this organization's blog posts.  Today's is no exception. 

Following that little disclaimer then, it may come as no surprise, (or may, depending on your level of obtuse partisanship), that we find the current push by Senate Democrats to reform use of the filibuster under Senate Rules to be reasonable and in the best interest of the country, especially as it pertains to ending the use of "secret holds," the practice where a single Senator can anonymously prevent legislation-- or in some cases votes on nominees of the executive branch to federal agencies or vacancies in the courts-- from coming to the floor for a vote.  In conjunction with the now-common practice of holding up legislation with a mere "threat" of a Filibuster without ever having to take to the Senate floor to actually carry it out, such tactics can be used by the party out of power to delay, often permanently, action on nominees or legislation they find objectionable. 

Such practices have, in recent years, been increasingly abused for partisan purposes by politicians on both sides of the political aisle, (the Democrats blocking virtually any Amendments by Republicans to the "health reform" bill more popularly known as "Obamacare" comes to mind), but it is not a practice by any means of Democrats alone; Indeed, Republicans during the current, as well as the Clinton Adminstration have also utilized such practices.

Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that use of the filibuster and such tactics as mentioned above for partisan and obstructionist purposes have little place in our modern Democratic Republic. 

Indeed, instead of a tool meant to guarantee full discussion and debate on matters of important public interest before action is taken that may have long term unintended consequences, (rather than delivering the sound bites and political zingers we have become all too accustomed to and which the current rules encourage), the current incarnation of the filibuster little resembles the one that Jimmy Stewart's character would have recognized and has come to be wielded instead as a tool to shut down debate of issues.  This, in a Democratic Republic founded on principles of the First Amendment, should not be so.  

In this regard our leftist-leaning Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders had it right.  In line with the more traditional and historical use of the filibuster he at least had enough respect for its proper use to actually take to the floor of the Senate for an astonishing-- at least in the modern age-- almost 9 hours before exhaustion forced him to step down (or more precisely, away) from the podium.  

In our view, this is as it should be.

In this light, we believe it shortsighted for the Republicans (or any Democrats for that matter) not to support a return to a more traditional use of the filibuster and related rules; indeed, while today it may be the Democrats who, for admittedly partisan gain at this point in time want to reform said rules, that should not preclude consideration of this issue on the merits.  (Indeed, even from a "Republican" point of view it is our humble opinion that opposing such reform makes little sense, as we shall shortly show).

We therefore urge both parties, (and especially the Republicans who are more apt to object at this point) to support reasonable Filibuster Reform and put the good of the nation ahead of short term political advantage. 

Now in fairness, Republicans do have some concerns.  They were boiled down to chiefly four last week by Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), in justifying opposing filibuster reform.  According to a Huffington Post article, and in Senator Alexander's words, (his words in quotes), we note the following objections of Mr. Alexander to this seemingly common-sense change in Senate Rules:

1) They "dimish the rights of the minority," 2) "diluting the right to debate and vote on amendments deprives the nation of a valuable forum for achieving consensus on difficult issues," 3) the "brazen power grab by Democrats this year will surely guarantee a similar action by Republicans in two years if Republicans gain control of the Senate as many believe is likely to happen" and 4) any legislation pushed through the Senate under the new rules would "undoubtedly die in the Republican-controlled House during the next two years." See here.

This however seems to miss the forest for the trees and deny the truth-seeking dictum to disregard the source in determining the validity or non-validity of an idea.  And, at least from our perspective, the idea of some form of filibuster reform is sound.

As to the first, well, yes, to an extent any cutting back of the use of the filibuster diminishes the power of the minority.  But in light of the fact that Republicans have complained bitterly about alleged abuse by the Democrats of this power in recent years-- The recent health care "debate, "where Democrats would not allow Republicans to offer significant amendments to the legislation before forcing it through on a party-line vote, comes to mind-- why wouldn't they want to pare it back to at least its more traditional "Mr. Smith" form?  This to us seems distinctly in the national interest.

Number two is not necessarily true, especially if new filibuster rules enacted preserves the right by Senators to engage in the afore-mentioned and more traditional "talking filibuster".  It actually might foster the opposite effect of forcing Senators to actually work together more to reach consensus on difficult issues if they knew they couldn't simply hold up legislation endlessly and would have to hold the floor of the Senate instead of merely threaten a filibuster on divisive issues they cared deeply about.

Three, if, Republicans truly believe they will win a majority in the Senate in 2012, as the numbers do indeed suggest, changing the rules now will in fact make it more difficult for Democrats to block Republican reforms in two years, (when Democrats will then be in the minority).  In any event, pure partisanship seems a particularly poor basis on which to make public policy in this country. 

As for the fourth concern of Senator Alexander, again, this appears to us to be a classic case of missing the forest for the trees.  Aside from the fact that we are not aware that the House has authority to vote on alterations to Senate Rules, even if true, the Senate voting to do the right thing shouldn't be held up merely on the basis that the House might not like it.   Let the Senate pass what they deem fit, and let the House respond in due course and/or the differences be ironed out in conference.  This is what our Democratic process is for.  

In closing, it is worth mentioning that we at the ACLP believe that, in this greatest nation on earth where the First Amendment was born, the solution to bad legislation is more debate, not less, and that the Senate, as the nation's highest law making body, should be ashamed of its desire to hide behind an expanded, modern "filibuster" just to avoid having to publicly take stands on issues.   Indeed, isn't this what true reform a la the phenomenem of the Tea Party movement which has just swept the Republicans back into the majority in the U.S. House is in large part about, more transparency?

In our view, this common sense reversion back to the traditional use of the filibuster, along with elimination/revision of the "cloture" rule, (i.e."secret holds"), ought to rather be at the top of the list of reforms enacted by new members of the Senate, (indeed, such an idea has broad bi-partisan support, see here.

Doing so is particularly in the national interest.  jp


  1. a lot of words, but are you saying anything?

  2. He is saying something; the rules for filibustering need to be changed and I agree. Letting senators drone-on in person to delay passage costs them a lot of energy, gets attention, and I think is quite democratic. Preventing votes doesn't.