Is It Time To Kill The Filibuster?

Tags: congress, filibuster, Politics, Harry Widdifield

Harry Widdifield by Harry Widdifield

Senator Mitch McConnel
filibustered his own bill.

One of the perks of being a United States Senator is that when the Senate recognizes you, you have the floor for as long as you continue standing and speaking. The Senate is made up of two representatives per state. If a senator can persuade fifty other senators to vote on his behalf (a simple majority), his will can become law.  Generally speaking, in this history of the Senate, Senators have reserved that time for speaking on matters of urgency, law, and other Senate business.  On occasion, that time has also been used to keep the Senate from voting on or discussing a bill or an appointment. That procedure is known as a filibuster. It can be broken with a 2/3 super majority vote of the Senate in a procedure known as cloture.

The most recent filibuster was initiated by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky, and while Paul spoke for nearly 13 hours, he was a far cry from breaking the current record, set by Strom Thurmond (R-SC) who used the filibuster to  protest the 1957 Civil Rights Act for 24 hours and 18 minutes.

According to Senate historian Donald Ritchie,filibusters don't typically end up killing a piece of legislation or blocking a nomination. "The intention is to draw attention to an issue," Ritchie said in a recent interview, according to USA Today. "What senators look for is press and public attention. All it does is delay action."

Paul's recent filibuster may not have broken any records, but it certainly joined an irritating line of recently successive filibusters by GOP Senators looking to control a Senate through procedure that they do not control in seats. And it has not gone unnoticed:

“Through the past six-plus years, the GOP minority-power strategy in the Senate has deliberately aimed to make the filibuster, historically a rarity, seem routine and acceptable,” says a recent article on The Atlantic. “Every news account that presents the super-majority 60-vote threshold as the "necessary bar" for Senate passage, and a majority of 55 votes as "certain defeat," ratifies this strategy.  

Senate Republicans have filibustered a staggering 399 times, with Democrats invoking cloture 167 times since 2007.

The GOP  has exerted control over the Senate through filibuster and threat of filibuster by a factor of two to one.  According to Senate records, Senate Republicans have filibustered a staggering 399 times, with Democrats invoking cloture 167 times since 2007. By comparison, during the previous six years, Republicans voted to invoke cloture 80 out of 201 times, roughly half of the number of times Republicans have filibustered in the past six years. In December, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY)  filibustered his own bill, which prompted some Democrats to call for filibuster reform.  Ironically, such a measure could itself be filibustered to prevent it reaching a floor vote.

There is a lot of talk of gridlock in Washington, but the reality of the numbers is that the gridlock in Congress is largely one-sided. Numbers do not lie. The American people voted in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 to give control of the United States Senate to the Democrats. Yet, by some fluke of procedure, controlling that house has been near-impossible for Senate Democrats, and all because of a previously used, but rarely abused procedure we call filibuster. It's time to reform it. Otherwise, count on ever-increasing gridlock in Washington, and yet another in a series of do-nothing Congresses. 

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