Senate Must Reform Filibuster

The conversation in the U.S. Senate as we approach the 113th United States Congress has shifted to the upcoming fiscal cliff, and how best to put together a deal that will appease both Republicans and Democrats to prevent what has been described as an armageddon that would plunge our economy into a second recession.

However, there is another, more subtle argument, occurring in the U.S. Senate that I would like to take time to comment on: the rules surrounding the filibuster. The filibuster is the ability of the minority party to kill a bill by requiring 60 votes to pass any measure, or a cloture vote. This super-majority is rarely ever reached. This is how obstructionism occurs in the Senate.

Both parties use the filibuster to kill bills or to require compromise. It’s why the Senate is considered a more deliberative body. It requires the consent of the majority and protects the rights of the minority to filibuster. However, this has been abused ever since the Democrats took over the Senate in 2007, to derail the Democratic agenda and that of President Barack Obama. In the 110th Congress (2007-2008), the filibuster was used 112 times, representing 18 percent of all Senate votes. For comparison, the most the Democrats used the filibuster in one session is 61 times. Still a lot, but that just goes to show that reform is necessary.

It is because of this that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has proposed a reform of the filibuster. No more should the filibuster threaten a bill from even being debated. That will no longer be possible. Also, the simple threat of filibustering wouldn’t be enough anymore. Now, a Senator who wishes to block a vote on a bill would have to get to the floor and talk the bill to death, like in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”.

It’s surprising to me that this is a measure that needs to take place; I thought this was already the case. What’s the point of a vote to stop debate (to invoke cloture and end a filibuster) if no debate is taking place?

The Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is staunchly against these changes. Of course he is: it would hurt his ability to be relevant in the Senate with a newly enlarged Democratic presence there (the Democrats increased their majority from 53 to 55 in the 2012 elections). He considers this a monumental change to the Senate. It eliminates “the minority voices the Senate was built to protect,” according to Sen. McConnell. Little did he know that this is not the case.

The founding fathers were staunchly against a filibuster. James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 58 that “[Requiring a supermajority] would mean the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule; the power would be transferred to the minority.” Likewise, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 22 that if “the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater … [the result will be] continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.” This does not sound like a support of “minority rights”, but rather a repudiation of them. It also sounds suspiciously like our current dysfunctional status quo.

The Senate was not built with a filibuster in mind. In 1805, Vice President Aaron Burr looked at the rule book of the Senate and saw a provision that required a majority vote to end debate. He thought it was a duplicate rule and recommended its elimination. In doing so, he inadvertently made the filibuster possible. Cloture (60 votes ending filibusters) wasn’t established until 1917, when the filibuster was first considered a real problem. It was established as a compromise measure. The filibuster was not created as a protection of the minority; it was an accident that had to be reigned in. And the current political climate means it should probably be reigned in again.

These rule changes normally require 67 votes. However, on the first day of business in January, it can be done with 51 votes due to an obscure rule, normally called the “nuclear option.” Sen. Reid intends to go forward with this, being attacked by Sen. McConnell for doing so.

To be fair, this is something that Sen. Reid also attacked when Republicans attempted it in 2005 to end the filibuster for judicial nominees. However, Sen. McConnell’s insistence that this is a “fundamental change to the way the Senate operates” is simply untrue. It’s exactly what he and his party wanted to do in 2005.

Therefore, the Senate should reform the filibuster. It is the only way we can get anything done and allow elections to matter. Otherwise, why bother voting for representatives, if the other side can just block them anyway? It’s time that the filibuster was reformed (not eliminated), and that if a Senator wants to filibuster, he or she can miss dinner and stand on the floor. A senator can be judged by the American people for blocking popular bills which should normally have bipartisan support. An example is the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which provides health care for 9/11 first responders. This bill was filibustered by Senate Republicans in 2010 before finally being accepted in a weaker version.

Filibuster reform is a path to a more open, responsive and productive Senate. I firmly support it.

Vijay Reddy is a College senior from Fayetteville, Ga.