The filibuster invokes images of a courageous lawmaker taking the floor of the U.S. Senate and talking for as long as he or she can to delay or block legislation that, in the senator’s view, is a detriment to the American people. Contemporary filibusters rarely require a U.S. senator to actually take the Senate floor and continually talk to block legislation. To ensure the contemporary filibuster remains meaningful, there must be basic filibuster reform.
That the filibuster — a powerful tool of the minority party to express its political dissatisfaction — is being abused in the Senate is nothing new in American history. For this reason, in 1917, the Senate ended the power for the minority party to filibuster indefinitely and created the process of “cloture,” which allows the Senate to end debate by a two-thirds majority vote.
Even with the process of cloture, filibustering was still a very effective tool in blocking legislation. Therefore, the Senate reduced the requirement for invoking cloture from two-thirds to a three-fifths majority vote in 1975.
The modern Republican Party has abused the filibuster to an extent never before seen since the cloture process was implemented in 1917. From 2007 to the present, there have been 283 votes on cloture, including a record 112 votes on cloture during the term of the 110th Congress. Prior to the 100th Congress, the number of votes on cloture in a particular congress never exceeded 61.
In an attempt to reduce the historic number of filibusters led by the Republican Party since 2007, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., intends to reform the filibuster at the beginning of the Senate’s next session — perhaps by exercising the “constitutional option” of changing the Senate’s rules by a simple majority vote. Reid’s reforms would include removing the requirement of 60 votes needed in order to pass “a motion to proceed to legislation” and would also require senators who wish to filibuster to physically come to the Senate floor and talk during the entire filibuster.
U.S. Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also said she will vote to require filibustering senators to talk on the Senate floor. In a blog on Huffington Post, she wrote, “If someone objects to a bill or a nomination in the United States Senate, they should have to stand on the floor of the chamber and defend their opposition.”
Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have opposed the proposals discussed by Sen. Reid. The Associated Press reported Boehner said Reid’s filibuster reform proposals are “clearly designed to marginalize Senate Republicans and their constituents while greasing the skids for controversial, partisan measures.”
Boehner is unequivocally incorrect. Reid’s proposals are not designed to marginalize the Republican Party in Congress — they are designed to fix a dysfunctional U.S. Senate. The reason for the dysfunction in the U.S. Senate, and indeed all of Congress, is the modern Republican Party.
Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, authors of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, have studied Congress for more than 40 years and in the past have criticized both political parties as the cause of American political dysfunction. The authors said times have changed though, and they wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem [political dysfunction] lies with the Republican Party.” They further added, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Republicans have no one else but themselves to blame for Sen. Reid’s proposed filibuster reform. If the Republican Party had exercised more discretion and used its filibusters in a limited and rational manner, instead of engaging in a stringent path of political and procedural obstructionism, there would be no need for Reid’s proposed reforms.
Republicans will still have the power to filibuster, but in order to do so they will have to speak on the Senate floor, just like Sen. Huey Long did during the 1930s when he filibustered for 15 hours. If Republicans truly want to filibuster legislation, they must speak on the Senate floor like Jefferson Smith did in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Aaron Loudenslager (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a first-year law student.