The filibuster has long been a staple of minority party politics in the Congress. Whether the Estate tax battle of 2006 or Strom Thurmond’s stand against the Civil Rights Act, those in the minority have long used the filibuster to prevent the passage of legislation.
Over the last decade though, what was intended to be a means to prevent political strong-arming has turned into a weapon for that very use. As obstructionism has become of the name of the game in Congress, a new generation of Senators who see the filibuster as an outdated, misused tool rallied to try and change the rules of the game. Led by Senators Merkley (Oregon-D) and Udall (Colorado-D), serious filibuster reform looked like it might be the best option to solve the gridlock present in Washington. This week, Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid announced a bipartisan reform package which does little to change what a generation of younger Senators feel is a broken mechanism in the Senate.
Here’s a quick list of the formal changes:
• Shorten debate following a cloture vote on the motion to proceed from 30 hours to four.
• Leave the ability to filibuster that cloture vote essentially intact.
• Allow the minority to offer two amendments on every bill.
• Shorten confirmation time for judicial nominees once cloture is invoked.
And two informal ones, which are to be executed without actually changing Senate rules:
• Senators will have to actually be on the floor to threaten a filibuster.
• Time allocated for debate will have to actually be spent on debate.”
While it is a step in the right direction, this package falls short of being the great reform hoped for by many on the left- and some on the right. After all, if Harry Reid were to lose the Senate in 2014, any large reform could quickly be brought to bear against the same party that authored and pushed reform.
While I understand the hesitation behind changing a system in fear that it could used against you, the fact remains that Washington remains broken without a system that allows for serious debate on issues. No one is advocating the removal of the filibuster from the Senate. But without meaningful change, the filibuster will continue to be the tool of obstructionists.
Without a change to the 60/40 split, the minority party will continue to be able to hold legislation with little actual effort. By forcing 41 votes in chamber, you can ensure that at least the representatives you pay are working, not just gaveling the session then leaving as has become common. Returning to the talking filibuster would make sure those Senators actually filibustering legislation are talking on the floor and present. These kinds of common sense changes can fix what has become a broken system and I fully support them.
The filibuster rule was conceived for a specific purpose- to ensure the minority party has the ability to debate issues without having votes forced upon them. Unfortunately, both parties are guilty of twisting the filibuster into something which currently prevents debate, the opposite of its intended purpose. If there’s any hope of getting back to work in Washington, we need to be willing to look at all the options in fostering effective discourse, even if it means changing a beloved rule such as the filibuster.
Reprinted from 5th District State Sen. Curt Thompson's (D-Tucker) blog. Thompson represents parts of unincorporated Duluth, Norcross, and Lawrenceville. Also, check the senator out on Facebook and Twitter.