The U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule (Rule XXII) currently requires 60 votes to stop debate and proceed to a vote on the merits of a bill or other proposal. It was designed to encourage full and careful debate, preventing the majority from steamrolling bills into law. In practice, the rule allows a minority – just 41 of the 100 senators — to stifle debate, not just slowing down the majority, but blocking it altogether.
For most of U.S. history, the Senate minority – Republican or Democratic – used the filibuster sparingly.
But in the two years of the 111th Congress (January 2009-January 2011), the minority Senate Republicans staged at least 136 filibusters. In some cases, the majority was able to muster the 60 votes demanded by the filibuster rule and move ahead. But at least 80 times, the minority was able to block action, and even debate. And these are just the filibusters we know about; in other cases, the mere threat of a filibuster persuaded Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to abandon legislation without even trying to bring it to the floor.
This practice of the minority Senate Republicans has continued in the 112th Congress (January 2011-January 2013).
Reform of the filibuster rule is one of the major issues supported by Common Cause, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest.
On May 14, 2012, Common Cause, four members of the House of Representatives and three private citizens sued Senate President Joe Biden and the Secretary, Parliamentarian, and Sergeant-at-Arms of the U.S. Senate in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for declaratory and injunctive relief with respect to Senate Rule XXII.
The Common Cause complaint asserts that the 60-vote requirement in Senate Rule XXII violates the default parliamentary majority-takes-all rule, the careful balance of powers in the legislative branch and between the three branches, and the power of the Senate itself to changes its own rules (because along with Rule V (which continues the Senate rules from Senate to Senate) Rule XXII seems to require that 3/5 of Senators vote to change Rule XXII). In particular, the complaint alleges that the filibuster violates the Quorum Clause, the Presentment Clause, the power of the Vice President to break a Senate tie, the Advice and Consent Clause, and the equal representation of the states in the Senate–all of which in different ways assume majority rule. It also argues that the filibuster is in tension with the eight constitutional exceptions to majority rule.
In the Senate itself last week U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid admitted that its filibuster rule should be changed and confessed he had erred in not supporting such changes at the start of this session of Congress in January 2011. The precipitating cause of this admission and confession was the Republican Senators’ using the filibuster rule to prevent a vote on reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.
Reid’s belated support for changing the filibuster rule was welcomed in an editorial in the New York Times. But the newspaper endorsed one of the minimalist proposed changes: requiring 10 senators to start a filibuster and the supporters of a filibuster to speak continuously on the Senate floor to keep it going.
Even such a minimal change would be impossible during this congressional session because another Senate rule requires a two-thirds vote (67 senators) to change the rules. It would be easier to change the rules at the start of the next session (January 2013) when only a majority vote (51 senators) would be needed for such a change changes although some senators probably would argue that such a change would still require a two-thirds vote.
Prior posts have castigated the Senate Rules as a major deficiency in our government: “The Abominable Rules of the U.S. Senate;” “The Abominable Rules of the U.S. Senate Are Modified;” and “Miniscule Proposed Reform of Dysfunctional U.S. Senate Rules.” A post with a more general critique of the Senate and other aspects of our national government is “The Antiquated U.S. Constitution.”