U.S. Senate’s filibuster should be reformed

As major political issues such as immigration reform, health care and budget matters all vie for the spotlight in Washington, congressmen will almost certainly not attempt to look internally to pass institutional reform.

However, greater concern should be given toward passing new institutional reform in Congress. In particular, Congress should attempt to fix the filibuster, specifically by lowering the passage of cloture from 60 votes to a simple majority.

Fixing the filibuster would be a tangible way for congressmen to address the problem of partisan gridlock and to reduce the level of intentional obstruction that currently mars the legislative process.

A filibuster is parliamentary procedure in the Senate which allows a senator to take advantage of the Senate’s rules allowing for unlimited debate by his or her refusal to yield the floor while speaking for an extended period of time.

While conducting a filibuster on a bill, the senator can speak on the issue being debated but does not need to. In some cases senators will read from telephone books, cookbooks or literature for the simple purpose of stalling for time on a bill.

The original purpose for developing the filibuster was to protect the rights of minority members in the Senate. While the House of Representatives was conceived as the branch of Congress which played to the fickle whims of their constituents, the Senate was intended to carefully consider each bill and to have a more deliberative legislative process.

In particular, the Senate was intended to encourage equal representation and discussion between majority and minority members, with the filibuster ensuring that minority members could speak without encumbrance should they feel that their voice had not been heard on a given issue.

Problematically, the Senate now uses the filibuster more as a weapon to threaten the majority party than as a tool for protecting minority rights.

Setting up a filibuster is incredibly easy for senators to do, and filibusters are now almost always used as a stalling technique to prevent the Senate from bringing an unwanted piece of legislation or nomination to a vote.

National Journal argues that around 17 major pieces of legislation including important bills such as the DREAM Act, Paycheck Fairness Act, Creating American Jobs and Ending Offshoring Act, a permanent extension of the Bush middle class tax cuts and a number of nominations to federal courts and agencies all failed to pass throughout the 111th and 112th Congress because of the use of a filibuster, not because of a failed vote.

The minority party can oppose the passage of legislation not through voting, but by simply talking down a bill. As such, many important bills will fail to pass because of parliamentary trickery, not because they lack the support in Congress needed for passage.

Representation of constituents’ interests could be seriously impaired if bills that are supported by a majority of congressmen continually fail to pass or are stalled indefinitely because the minority party prevents them from even being discussed.

Compounding the problem of the filibuster becoming a sort of legislative roadblock is the cloture vote. In order to end a filibuster, senators must pass a vote for cloture, or a process that forces an end to debate on a bill in 30 hours.

A cloture vote requires 60 votes to pass, which in congressional terms equates to a supermajority. Bills that would otherwise pass with a 55-45 vote mark will almost certainly be blocked by a filibuster.

Due to the difficulty of amassing a supermajority to pass a cloture vote, the filibuster will almost certainly remain in place. As such, there is now a de facto supermajority required simply to pass a bill in the Senate, which significantly hampers the legislative process.

Lowering the number of votes required to pass cloture from 60 to a simple majority would make it easier to bring filibusters to an end thus helping return the filibuster to its original purpose of protecting minority rights.

In the long term, fixing the filibuster could act as a step towards establishing a working relationship between the Republicans and Democrats and a step away from the partisan conflict that has characterized and thoroughly damaged the reputation of Congress over the last decade.