Senate reform: Tame the filibuster beast – and make government work again
The exploding use of the filibuster by Republicans and Democrats in recent years has ground Congress to a halt. Just a few simple changes would make filibusters the exception, not the rule.
Teary-eyed nostalgists may see the bill-blocking procedure called the filibuster as a chief reason that the Senate has been called "the world's greatest deliberative body," but anyone with a passing knowledge of history knows this is ridiculous. The filibuster has played a fairly minor role in the Senate until recent decades, during which it has become the greatest threat to that reputation for deliberation. Though exact numbers are hard to establish, the occurrence of filibusters has clearly exploded, from single digits per Congress in the 1950s and '60s to more than 100 in recent terms.Skip to next paragraph
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The rare exception has become the rule that is crippling government.
The Senate has the power to halt this trend by revising its rules. Yet a majority of senators last month rejected several proposals to do just that.
Reformers should not give up, though. And their next push may succeed if they frame their revision not as a radical overhaul of a famously tradition-bound body, but as a modest tweak that keeps the current rules but puts the onus where it belongs: on the filibusterers.
The filibuster is actually an unintentional byproduct of an 1806 housecleaning that removed the parliamentary mechanism for majorities to end debate; another 30 years elapsed before the first filibuster occurred. That brief history reveals two key points: The filibuster was never part of the intentional design of the Senate, and it exists because opportunistic members are willing to exploit this void in the rules.
Forget 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'
Senators have always had plenty of ways to delay matters. Nonetheless, most people think of the filibuster as an endless speech à la Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith. There have been a notable handful of such speeches in Senate history, but the only reason real-life senators chose that tactic was to attract attention. If the goal was merely to delay or kill a bill, there were always less-exhausting options.
So it may seem amazing that filibusters were relatively rare events until recent decades. The reason is that senators saw filibusters as an affront to themselves and the institution, and actively discouraged them.
Those norms have now collapsed. It would have been no surprise, even under the old order, to find opponents filibustering something as high-profile as heath-care reform. But filibusters have proliferated on all sorts of bills and nominations, so it is now commonplace to find senators blocking popular measures that they themselves end up supporting on final passage. That has little or no precedent. Some of this amounts to old-fashioned horse-trading, where senators use the threat of delay to extract additional concessions even on bills they like. Most, however, reflect the new partisan reality in which senators feel bound to support their party's efforts to block a bill. Indeed, the leader of today's Republican minority, Sen. Mitch McConnell, openly brags about his success in organizing filibusters of practically everything he can.