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.
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.