New York Times Hosts Debate Over the Filibuster

Do Filbusters Stall the Senate or Give It Purpose?” is the latest topic in the New York Times’ feature: Room for Debate.

Arguing for reform of the Senate’s filibuster rule are (a) Aaron Belkin, professor of political science at San Francisco State University and the author of  How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repal of  ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ; (b) Barbara Sinclair, an emerita professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of Party Wars: Polarization and the Politics of National Policy Making; and (c) Gregory Koger, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami and the author of  Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate.

The opponent of reform by simple majority vote is Richard A. Arenberg, who served on the staffs of Senators Paul Tsongas, George Mitchell and Carl Levin, is an adjunct professor at Brown University and co-author of Defending the Filibuster: The Soul of the Senate.

Arguments for Reform

Belkin says that the “filibuster allows candidates from both parties to run on extreme positions that they know will never become law; its absence would encourage moderation over time.” Ending the filibuster, he argues, “would reduce cynicism by making the government more responsive to voters, especially after landslide elections.” Belkin, therefore, is skeptical about the benefits of the modest changes being discussed by Senator Harry Reid. Instead Belkin suggests that the filibuster be eliminated in its entirety.

Sinclair believes that the filibuster rule is “a barrier to passage of major legislation” and has been used by the Republicans under the leadership of Senator Mitch McConnell with “the intent on making a [Democratic] majority appear incompetent.” She endorses Senator Reid’s limited proposal to eliminate the filibuster on motions to proceed and motions relating to sending a Senate bill to conference with the House of Representatives and to require supporters of a filibuster to talk on the Senate floor. But she is skeptical about the effectiveness of such changes and instead advocates putting the burden of a filibuster on the minority such as requiring the “filibusterers [to] be able to muster 41 votes at any time during a filibuster” and if they cannot do so, having a simple majority issue decide the substantive issue.

Koger lambasts the Senate Republicans for exploiting “their power to block every major measure and to slow down the Senate for the stated goal of aiding the electoral fortunes of [their] Party, even if Americans and the national interest suffer as a result.” He, therefore, suggests filibustering being banned for “motions to begin debate on legislation, nominations for executive branch positions, formation of a conference committee [with the House] and appropriations bills.” He also concurs with Sinclair’s idea of requiring 41 votes to keep a debate going and having such votes occur on an hour’s notice. Finally he favors “an expedited process for bills and nominations that face opposition by [only] a few senators, so that proposals with wide support . . . can be approved swiftly. This would reduce the problem of ‘holds,’ which allow a single senator to delay or even kill . . . measures.”

Arguments Against Reform

Arenberg asserts that the “filibuster is fundamental to the protection of the minority’s right to debate and to offer amendments.”

Therefore, he says the solution to any problems is to mend the rule, not end it. And he has no major difficulties with the modest reforms being proposed by Senator Reid.

But Arenberg opposes amending the rule by a simple majority vote, the so-called “constitutional option.” Such an option, he contends, ignores “the Senate’s rules, precedents and the advice of the parliamentarian.”  If this is done in January 2013, it can be done again. Such a result, he believes, would eliminate “the heritage and historic purpose of the Senate.”


The Arenberg argument does not persuade me. I still strongly believe that elimination or significant reform of the filibuster rule is very important for the proper functioning of our federal government. If 51 votes for total elimination of the filibuster cannot be obtained in January 2013, then I endorse the additional reform suggestions put forth by Sinclair and Koger.


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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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