As the 111th Congress enters the history books, most retrospectives point to its major accomplishments, including health care reform and repealing the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. One overlooked – though just as important – story of this Congress, however, is the rise of the filibuster and its role in killing legislation, blocking appointments, and often times bringing the legislative branch to a standstill.
Long gone are the noble Mr. Smith Goes To Washington filibusters where senators were forced to actually defend their obstructionism for hours on end. They have been replaced instead by record-breaking gridlock where a 41-member minority effectively wields veto power over all legislation. Look no further than the following chart from Ezra Klein to see just how rapidly the filibuster has become a mainstay in the Senate:
However, as the beginning of the 112th Congress draws near, there are hopeful signs that Senate obstructionism may be relegated to the past. This week, the National Journal reports that returning Democratic senators unanimously signed a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), urging him to change the Senate’s filibuster rules when Congress reconvenes in January:
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
The letter, delivered this week, expresses general frustration with what Democrats consider unprecedented obstruction and asks Reid to take steps to end those abuses. While it does not urge a specific solution, Democrats said it demonstrates increased backing in the majority for a proposal, championed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and others, weaken the minority’s ability to tie the Senate calendar into parliamentary knots.
Among the chief revisions that Democrats say will likely be offered: Senators could not initiate a filibuster of a bill before it reaches the floor unless they first muster 40 votes for it, and they would have to remain on the floor to sustain it. That is a change from current rules, which require the majority leader to file a cloture motion to overcome an anonymous objection to a motion to proceed, and then wait 30 hours for a vote on it.
Udall hopes his plan, known as the “Constitutional Option,” or a similar filibuster reform proposal will be considered when the Senate votes on its parliamentary rules come January 5. Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress explains how 51 senators have a brief window at the beginning of a new legislative session to implement rules changes, but if they fail to act, they are “essentially locking [the old] rules in place for another two years.”
Though filibuster-defenders often argue that it is a necessary check on the power of the majority, Ezra Klein points out that ridding ourselves of the filibuster would actually lead to greater bipartisanship. “In a world without a filibuster, where legislation can pass if the majority wants it to pass,” Klein writes, “it would be easier for members of the minority to break ranks, as a strategy of relentless obstruction wouldn’t work, and their unyielding opposition would no longer decide where legislation lived or died.”
Indeed, the filibuster was never even originally intended to exist. “It’s a mistake,” notes filibuster historian Sarah Binder. And not even a popular one, at that. A poll last month found that nearly two-thirds of voters favored scrapping the filibuster altogether, including 57 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Independents.
If Democrats do succeed in reforming the filibuster next Congress, headlines like “DREAM Act Fails in 55-41 Senate Vote” may soon be a thing of the past.