Nuking the Senate

Senate Democrats employed the so-called “nuclear option,” changing Senate rules so as to eliminate the possibility of a filibuster for presidential appointments (not including Supreme Court justices–nor does it apply to regular legislation, which may still be filibustered).  The threat of a filibuster–that is, unlimited debate, unless a supermajority shuts it down–has meant that Senators had to cobble together 60 votes to pass a bill or confirm a nominee.

Yes, the filibuster slowed things down, but, as (liberal) Dana Milbank points out, it also required the forging of bipartisan support.  For that reason, he says, today’s Senate has actually accomplished much more than the polarized House of Representatives has. “Now the Senate will be just as dysfunctional.”  See Mr. Milbank’s case for the filibuster after the jump. [Read more...]

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.

Filibuster

Now that Democrats have lost their filibuster-proof supermajority, some are clamoring to eliminate the filibuster.  That refers to the traditional Senate principle allowing unlimited debate apart from a vote of cloture.  That means that any Senator can keep talking on an issue, preventing it from coming up for a vote, unless 60 Senators vote  to end debate.  In practice, this means that bills need 60 votes just to get to the floor for action.  Here is a non-partisan defense of the system:  Ruth Marcus – Why the filibuster is frustrating but necessary – washingtonpost.com.

But, as I understand it (somebody correct me if I’m wrong), today’s Senate rules do not require anyone to do the work of actually filibustering–that is, continually speaking on the Senate floor in marathon session without eating, going to the bathroom, or falling asleep, as in Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  That was the old school Senate.  Today, a member simply has to invoke the filibuster and the cloture rule goes into effect.  It is no longer necessary to, you know, filibuster.  No wonder the number of cloture votes has sky-rocketed and the Senate can hardly get anything done!

I propose keeping the filibuster for the reasons Ruth Marcus mentions.  But changing the rule back to the true tradition of the Senate so as to require actual continuous debate.  That would prevent the filibuster threat from being used all the time, while saving it for the big issues.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X