Reforming the Senate

Ezra Klein reports on efforts in the Senate to reform the filibuster rule in the Senate:

The problem with a president promising to “change Washington” is that the presidency isn’t the part of Washington that’s broken. The systemic gridlock, dysfunction and polarization that so frustrate the country aren’t located in the executive branch. They’re centered in Congress. And one of their key enablers is Senate Rule XXII — better known as the filibuster.

Filibusters used to be relatively rare. There were more filibusters between 2009 and 2010 than there were in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s combined. A strategy memo written after the 1964 election by Mike Manatos, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Senate liaison, calculated that in the new Senate, Medicare would pass with 55 votes — the filibuster didn’t even figure into the administration’s planning.

There were more filibusters between in the 111th Congress (2009-2010) than in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s combined. (Data: Congress.gov, Graph: Ezra Klein)

Today, the filibuster isn’t used to defend minority rights or ensure debate. Rather, the filibuster is simply a rule that the minority party uses to require a 60-vote supermajority to get anything done in the Senate. That’s not how it was meant to be.

And it’s not how it has to be. The Constitution states that each chamber of Congress “may determine the rules of its proceedings.” And this week’s election has provided fresh evidence that the Senate, at least, may be preparing to remake its most pernicious rule.

Chris Murphy, the incoming Democratic senator from Connecticut, couldn’t have been clearer: “The filibuster is in dire need of reform,” he told Talking Points Memo. “Whether or not it needs to go away, we need to reform the way the filibuster is used, so it is not used in the order of everyday policy, but is only used in exceptional circumstances.”

Angus King, the independent senator-elect from Maine, said, “My principal issue is the functioning of the Senate.” He backs a proposal advanced by the reform group No Labels that would end the filibuster on motions to debate, restricting filibusters to votes on actual legislation. The group also wants to require filibustering senators to physically hold the Senate floor and talk, rather than simply instigate a filibuster from the comfort of their offices.

via Is this the end for the filibuster?.

The problem, in my opinion, is that the filibuster has become just a procedural matter to be invoked at will–basically, a threat to filibuster–so as to require a 60-vote supermajority on Senate actions (60 votes being the number of votes required to shut off debate).  I think the filibuster should be returned to its earlier days of glory, in which a Senator had to stay on the floor speaking for as long as he could to delay action, just like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

But, as part of filibuster reform and perhaps more importantly, I would like to reform the Senate so as to restore the importance of floor debate.  As it is, when you go as a visitor to our nation’s Capitol and sit in the Senate gallery, typically, nothing is happening.  Virtually no Senators are present.  The chair presides–a position constitutionally given to the Vice-President and potentially conveying real power and responsibility, but now that task is delegated to a revolving cast of members.  A few individual Senators are reading statements to be entered into the Congressional Record, mainly for the benefit of their constituents.  There is some back-and-forth debate on bills, but it is mostly canned and pro-forma, with few senators in a position to be persuaded, or even, usually, in attendance.  Only when a vote is called do the Senators as a whole enter the chamber.  Virtually all business is conducted in committees, rather than on the floor.  On the whole, though, what was once called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” does little collective deliberation anymore.

I’d like to see the Senate strengthen the quorum rules so as to require senators to be present while the Senate is convened.  They could still do committee work.   There could be fewer actual sessions.  But the whole genius of legislative government depends on  the wisdom of a collective group as opposed to that of atomize individuals and we are in danger of losing that in the legislative branch.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • EricM

    It would be nice to see the Senate (and the House) actually function as a legislative body. Real debate…and in the open! Wow what a concept!

    As to the reform of the filibuster – it never ceases to amaze me how people have selective memory. I believe that is was the Democrats that used the filibuster (or something akin to it…it may have been this idea of a “hold”) to sink Republican judicial nominees.

  • EricM

    It would be nice to see the Senate (and the House) actually function as a legislative body. Real debate…and in the open! Wow what a concept!

    As to the reform of the filibuster – it never ceases to amaze me how people have selective memory. I believe that is was the Democrats that used the filibuster (or something akin to it…it may have been this idea of a “hold”) to sink Republican judicial nominees.

  • MarkB

    I too would like to return to an era of debate on the floor of the senate. Then at least those who would put ideas forth would need to be able to explain these ideas in a lucid manner.

    On the filibuster, I think it is a great way to avoid the tyrany of the majority and should be upheld.

  • MarkB

    I too would like to return to an era of debate on the floor of the senate. Then at least those who would put ideas forth would need to be able to explain these ideas in a lucid manner.

    On the filibuster, I think it is a great way to avoid the tyrany of the majority and should be upheld.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Before we return to an era of debate on the floor of the Senate, can we have some Senators who can speak in complete sentences and make coherent arguments?

    Or better yet, how about having a Senate that passes a budget? Let’s start with baby steps.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Before we return to an era of debate on the floor of the Senate, can we have some Senators who can speak in complete sentences and make coherent arguments?

    Or better yet, how about having a Senate that passes a budget? Let’s start with baby steps.

  • MarkB

    @3
    I think you would first need to have someone else other than Senator Reid lead the senate to have any chance of that happening.

  • MarkB

    @3
    I think you would first need to have someone else other than Senator Reid lead the senate to have any chance of that happening.

  • http://thinkingwithareformedmind.blogspot.com Steven Mitchell

    The reason the filibuster is used more often has to do with earlier reforms to the Standing Rules of the Senate. It used to be the case that a filibuster completely brought everything to a halt in the Senate. So when a Senator filibustered, he stopped all business. So long as a Senator was filibustering, absolutely nothing else could be done.

    That changed in the 1960s and 1970s, when a so-called ‘two-track system’ was introduced. Under this system, the Senate may entertain multiple motions at once, shifting between them as necessary. Thus, a filibuster no longer stops all business from occurring. Even if a motion is being filibustered, the Senate is able to debate a different motion and conduct routine daily business.

    While this reform was good idea in theory, in practice it means that a filibuster no longer carries the political cost that it once did. Before the two-track reform, a filibuster required a senator willing to effectively shut down the Senate indefinitely. That exceedingly steep political cost is no longer borne by a filibusterer. The only significant cost which the contemporary filibusterer carries is stopping the bill which he opposes. Thus, instead of having an average of only one filibuster per Congress, we have a dozen or two.

  • http://thinkingwithareformedmind.blogspot.com Steven Mitchell

    The reason the filibuster is used more often has to do with earlier reforms to the Standing Rules of the Senate. It used to be the case that a filibuster completely brought everything to a halt in the Senate. So when a Senator filibustered, he stopped all business. So long as a Senator was filibustering, absolutely nothing else could be done.

    That changed in the 1960s and 1970s, when a so-called ‘two-track system’ was introduced. Under this system, the Senate may entertain multiple motions at once, shifting between them as necessary. Thus, a filibuster no longer stops all business from occurring. Even if a motion is being filibustered, the Senate is able to debate a different motion and conduct routine daily business.

    While this reform was good idea in theory, in practice it means that a filibuster no longer carries the political cost that it once did. Before the two-track reform, a filibuster required a senator willing to effectively shut down the Senate indefinitely. That exceedingly steep political cost is no longer borne by a filibusterer. The only significant cost which the contemporary filibusterer carries is stopping the bill which he opposes. Thus, instead of having an average of only one filibuster per Congress, we have a dozen or two.

  • Michael H.

    While we’re at it, let’s get rid of the C-Span cameras. That may sound like a retrograde, un-democratic move, but every time I listen to Senators and Congresspersons speak on the floor, I get the distinct impression that they’re speaking to their constituents, not to each other. I suspect that if there was no audience beyond Capitol Hill, debate might be conducted on a higher plane. But perhaps I’m wrong.

  • Michael H.

    While we’re at it, let’s get rid of the C-Span cameras. That may sound like a retrograde, un-democratic move, but every time I listen to Senators and Congresspersons speak on the floor, I get the distinct impression that they’re speaking to their constituents, not to each other. I suspect that if there was no audience beyond Capitol Hill, debate might be conducted on a higher plane. But perhaps I’m wrong.

  • Eric G

    I wouldn’t mind seeing the 17th Amendment repealed. This would put more accountablilty on US Senators from dumping too many regulations and payment responsibilities onto state governnments.

  • Eric G

    I wouldn’t mind seeing the 17th Amendment repealed. This would put more accountablilty on US Senators from dumping too many regulations and payment responsibilities onto state governnments.

  • kerner

    The party with a less-than-60 majority always makes loud complaints about this, and always for partisan reasons.

    Am I the only one who remembers the mid 2000′s, when Conservative talk radio was almost apoplectic about the filibuster, and how they declared it not just undemocratic but unconstitutional? Back then one of the biggest knocks on John McCain was that he formed the “Gang of 14″ (at least I think the number was 14), who were working out compromises that kept the filibuster in place.

    I suspect that McCain knew that someday the shoe would be on the other foot. And now it is, and it is the Democrats who are whining and moaning. And I don’t feel the least bit sorry for them, and I see no reason to change the rules.

  • kerner

    The party with a less-than-60 majority always makes loud complaints about this, and always for partisan reasons.

    Am I the only one who remembers the mid 2000′s, when Conservative talk radio was almost apoplectic about the filibuster, and how they declared it not just undemocratic but unconstitutional? Back then one of the biggest knocks on John McCain was that he formed the “Gang of 14″ (at least I think the number was 14), who were working out compromises that kept the filibuster in place.

    I suspect that McCain knew that someday the shoe would be on the other foot. And now it is, and it is the Democrats who are whining and moaning. And I don’t feel the least bit sorry for them, and I see no reason to change the rules.

  • kerner

    Oops. Clearly I am not the “only one”, as EricM @1 remembered it also.

  • kerner

    Oops. Clearly I am not the “only one”, as EricM @1 remembered it also.

  • DonS

    I’m looking in vain for Ezra Klein’s complaints when Democrats were using the filibuster during the Bush administration. I’ll keep looking ….

    Seriously, the Senate Democrats can, of course, do whatever they want with the filibuster rule when they open the new session. Senate rules are established by majority vote, with no filibuster allowed, so Republicans cannot stop them. However, they know that sooner or later, quite possibly in 2014 given the high number of vulnerable seats they have to defend in that election, the shoe will be on the other foot. In view of that, I predict no substantive changes in the filibuster rules for this upcoming session.

  • DonS

    I’m looking in vain for Ezra Klein’s complaints when Democrats were using the filibuster during the Bush administration. I’ll keep looking ….

    Seriously, the Senate Democrats can, of course, do whatever they want with the filibuster rule when they open the new session. Senate rules are established by majority vote, with no filibuster allowed, so Republicans cannot stop them. However, they know that sooner or later, quite possibly in 2014 given the high number of vulnerable seats they have to defend in that election, the shoe will be on the other foot. In view of that, I predict no substantive changes in the filibuster rules for this upcoming session.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    The reform the Senate needs is to be elected by the state legislatures. The states are not properly represented.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    The reform the Senate needs is to be elected by the state legislatures. The states are not properly represented.

  • Random Lutheran

    It would also be nice if we had better representation in the house. Our representatives each represent far too many people; the current lock on the number of representatives is stupid. If we could have population-based districts (where the average of a few algorithms would be used to evenly distribute districts across states) + more representatives, Congress would look much more like America, and at the same time we would be able to at least control gerrymandering.

    Could we also get rid of pensions & retirement benefits for these folks, too? And quit calling someone who formerly held an office by the title of the office. He’s not the president anymore, dude. He’s not even an appointed official. He’s “Mister”, at best.

  • Random Lutheran

    It would also be nice if we had better representation in the house. Our representatives each represent far too many people; the current lock on the number of representatives is stupid. If we could have population-based districts (where the average of a few algorithms would be used to evenly distribute districts across states) + more representatives, Congress would look much more like America, and at the same time we would be able to at least control gerrymandering.

    Could we also get rid of pensions & retirement benefits for these folks, too? And quit calling someone who formerly held an office by the title of the office. He’s not the president anymore, dude. He’s not even an appointed official. He’s “Mister”, at best.