Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Filibuster Problem

The story with the filibuster is always the same: if you are in the minority party, you adore it and if you are in the majority party you despise it. And of course, senators tend to change their positions depending on which party is in power along the Beltway, throwing red meat to the packs of political commentators and lighting up CNN's news tickers. But one thing a surprising number of senators agree on is that, love it or hte it, the filibuster is broken. I happen to think that it's high time we start thinking about filibuster reform. One only has to look at the recent Jim Bunning debacle to wonder about the wisdom of giving one single person the power to cost thousands of people their unemploymet benefits and even thousands more their jobs.

First, some history. The filibuster is a power peculiar to the Senate, written into the Senate rules to protect minority rights. Simply put, it allows one person (or a group of people) to virtually kill a bill by refusing to stop talking about it. In more technical terms, it allows unlimited debate on a bill, which can only be ended by a cloture vote. With 60+ votes, the bill passes; any less, and it is officially dead. The filibuster is in essence a way to protect the rights of the minority and ensure that all sides are heard in a debate. But of course, if the party in power has a 60+ supermajority, a filibuster is ineffective even as a threat (unless senators in the majority party join in the filibuster).

Like many tool made with good intentions, the filibuster has changed -- for the worse. In the old days, a senator who wanted to filibuster a bill had to stand on the Senate floor, stare his or her colleagues and the American people in the face, and say exactly why he or she opposed the bill. Senators has to speak, nonstop, until a cloture vote was called. That happens no longer. The Senate has evolved a 2-track system for legislative business, so that one senator can simply declare that bill X -- say, on environmental regulation -- is being filibustered, while work on bill Y -- say, on equal pay laws -- continues. This removes a lot of the personal accountability from the senators launching a filibuster. And no matter how much Jim Bunning complains about missing basketball games in order to stop the COBRA extension bill, he has it much easier than the Strom Thurmonds and Henry Clays of days gone by.

With this change in how the filibuster is implemented has come a seeming change in its purpose. Not only is it being used as a way to protect the minority, extend debates, and kill potentially damaging bills, it is being used to bring the senate to a virtual halt. Now, Tom Coburn might love gridlock, but as a normal citizen, I despise it. The gridlock was so bad recently that the Senate was sitting on upwards of 200 bills that had passed the House but couldn't be acted on because of filibusters, real or threatened.

So I propose we reform the filibuster. Because it is impossible to get rid of it (at lease from a common-sense point of view, because the Republican "nuclear option" of a few years ago would have allowed a simple majority to override a Senate rule and stop a filibuster). The point is that the filibuster has a defined and useful purpose. It is the constant abuse of the filibuster that must stop. The following reforms would do much to move along the legislative process in the Senate while still allowing the filibuster to serve its original purpose.

  1. A filibuster should only be brought by more than one person. This ensures that there is a real, reasoned-out opposition to a bill, rather than one person acting in their own interest, or that of special interest groups.
  2. We must return to the one-track system. If some senators want to talk a bill to death, they darn well better be prepared to, well, talk . . . for as long as it takes. Not only will this make people think twice about filibustering, it will also re-instate the degree of responsibility and accountability that comes with bringing a legislative body to a complete halt for hours.
  3. Filibusters should not be used on judicial or other presidential nominees. This not conflicts with the powers of the executive branch, it nearly brought the Senate down once, and could possibly do so again. That is one thing no one (except possibly Mr. Coburn) wants to see happen.
  4. If senators choose to filibuster a bill, they should be required to speak on topics related to the bill. This one is common sense, guys. The purpose of a filibuster is unlimited debate over a bill. If you're reminiscing about Grandma's mint juleps, you're not debating a bill (at least, I hope you're not! That would be one strange piece of legislation). If a senator is that eager to delay a vote on a bill, he or she should put a hold on it. Not filibuster it.

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