Bust the Filibuster (or, Fix What’s Wrong With It)

February 23rd, 2010

“Washington was immobilized by snow… This is highly unusual. Normally, Washington is immobilized by senators.” – New York Times

Filibusters are again in the news, with pre-emptive strike by the White House against likely GOP filibuster of healthcare reform, and Scott Brown’s siding with Dems to break an attempted GOP filibuster of the jobs bill (more on each of those later), so here’s a follow-up to our earlier post, inspired by Stop worrying and love the filibuster, No, there’s a good reason not to love it (Washington Post 1/31/10), Fixing the Filibuster (Sen. Tom Harkin, Huffington Post 2/12/10), Bring on the Filibuster (The Nation 2/22/10— a must-read editorial), this comment by Marcospinelli (a little Conspiracy Theory for me, but nonetheless supported by empirical evidence), and this excellent comment from StevelK:

“This Senate has filibustered more times than in the 50s and 60s COMBINED (and this Senate is barely over halfway through it’s session). This is not a case of the Rs tweaking the nose of the Ds from time to time. This is a calculated strategy by the Senate Rs to try and make as little as possible happen, to be able to claim that the Ds can’t govern. It’s not just about having ideological problems with the content of the bills. Many times the Rs in the Senate are filibustering bills, and once the Ds break the filibuster, they turn around and vote for them! Not to mention all the times that they are filibustering bills whose counterparts in the House received support from 50+ Rs. The Rs are putting their desire to gain seats in Nov. over the good of the country. Period.”

The filibustering hero in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,

Used it against special interests that the government run.

Now, the sitution is reversed:

The GOP uses it to put special interests first.

The Senate’s rules are supposed to leave legislation improved,

With the worst parts removed.

Lately it’s done the converse:

Constant threat of filibuster has made legislation worse.

And instead of allowing debate, the current filibuster rule stops it

By delaying consideration of a bill until the Majority drops it.

The Senate’s ability to accomplish anything is subverted,

And Rule 22’s original goal is perverted.

Should Republicans be allowed to endlessly bluster,

Or should we just dump the filibuster?

Under Bush, Republicans threatened to do that again and again

(I guess this is now, and that was then).

The GOP called it the “nuclear option.”

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s an option.

The action that this approach would embody

Is that Biden would declare the Senate not a continuing body.

Biden can do this as the Senate’s President,

By dint of being the VP Mansion’s current resident.

The Senate’s prior rules would cease to exist under this authority,

And new rules (without the filibuster) could be adopted by simple majority.

Republicans last threatened this when Dems were blocking Bush nominees—

Elminating the filibuster would have let them the GOP do as they please.

But rather than face that, Senate Dems caved

And the super-majority requirement was waived.

Of course, if they do this, Senate Dems may regret

If the GOP in November the majority would get.

Our respective positions would then be reversed,

And Dems would then be the ones being coerced.

A more moderate approach is to just use reconciliation,

Which can’t be filibustered, but includes a complication:

It only works for a budgetary action,

Which means it’s only a partial solution for preventing inaction.

Republicans oppose doing that for healthcare, of course,

And have started to refer to it as the “nuclear option” to make it sound worse.

They themselves used reconciliation all the time

And didn’t end up having to use their rule change nuclear option at the time.

Senator Harkin has come up with a novel approach,

Which he did in the Huffington Post broach.

He proposed a sliding scale,

Which differs from current practice in one important detail.

A cloture motion to stop debate would still require 60 votes,

Which the Senate’s purpose of encouraging debate promotes.

But after a fixed number of days or weeks had gone by,

A decreasing number of votes would apply.

For example, if every week the requirement was reduced by one,

Then a majority could stop a filibuster nine weeks after it had begun.

Whatever the time frame, after it was exceeded,

Only a simple majority would be needed.

Harkin offered the same bill when Dems were in the minority in 1995,

And therefore wanted to keep the filibuster alive.

Under current rules, this change would require a two-thirds majority

(Unless of course Dems adopted the nuclear option’s simple majority).

Another option is to restore the original filibuster rule,

Which required an actual verbal duel.

Making filibusterers go for days without sleep,

Should the number of filibusters more reasonable keep.

That would also have the advantage of making Republicans explain why

They continue consideration of a bill to deny.

Making them look like fools

Would lead to more reasonable use of the rules.

In any case, the filibuster as it currently stands

Places too much power in minority party hands.

It must be fixed, or it must go

So we can say good-bye to the Party of No.








Here’s an excellent NPR interview of author Greg Koger on the current use of the filibuster in America and the use of the “virtual” filibuster (check out his new book Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate in our Amazon store).


Here’s PA Gov. Ed Rendell on Good Morning America making the argument that Dems should let Republicans filibuster.


Here’s a scene from the 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.


With all this talk about the nuclear option and wanting to stop worrying, how could I not include a reference to this classic, Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (also appropriate, given the Strangelovian approach that the Republicans take to governing). Here’s the trailer.


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