A Citizen’s Response to Washington Skirmishing Over Changing the U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

The U.S. Senate, in my opinion, is dysfunctional. One of the major sources of this failing is its filibuster rule that at least since 2009 has made it necessary to have the votes of at least 60 of the 100 Senators in order to do almost anything. I have railed against this rule and the way it has been used in many prior posts.

In anticipation of the new Congress’ convening in early January 2013, a group of Democratic Senators is developing support for modest changes to the filibuster rule. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is supportive of this effort. The exact nature of the proposed changes apparently has not been set, but would at least include banning the filibuster on motions to take up proposed legislation for debate on the Senate floor and motions to take Senate-approved legislation to conference with the House of Representatives’ negotiators plus requiring those invoking the filibuster rule in other instances to stand up and speak on the Senate floor.[1]

Under the standing Senate rules, any amendment to the rules requires a two-thirds (67) votes. In the next session of Congress in January this would mean that all 53 Democratic Senators plus the 2 Independent  Senators plus 12 Republican Senators would have to vote in favor of any amendment.  All Washington observers agree that such a vote could not be attained for the proposed change to the filibuster rule.

Therefore, the supporters of changing the filibuster rule argue that at the start of a new session of Congress the Senate may change or adopt new rules by a simple majority vote (51).

This possibility has caused some of the Republican Senators to go apoplectic. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said adopting this proposed rule change by a simple majority vote would be like throwing “a bomb into the Senate, have it blow up, and have everybody mad as heck.” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the incoming Republican whip, said, this would “shut down the Senate” and was an abuse of power. Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma added that it would “destroy” the Senate and cause a severe backlash. Similar comments have been made by Republican Senators John Barrasso of Wyoming, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Such remarks, in my opinion, are absurd.

There are even some Democratic Senators who have expressed opposition or skepticism about changing the rules by a simple majority vote. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said he preferred “not to use a mechanism which I believe is dubious.” Senator Bill Nelson of Florida said he did not like the simple majority-vote option.  Newly re-elected Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri stated that although she fully supported changing the rule, she was “not 100 percent in support” of the simple-majority-vote approach to doing do. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii merely said he was studying the proposal. In addition, Democratic Senator-Elect Joe Donnelly of Indiana said he was concerned about not protecting the things that make the Senate unique.

Much of this Democratic opposition or skepticism is the concern that someday they will be in the minority and wanting to block Republican proposals. However, this concern implicitly endorses eternal stalemate and the current Republican agenda of opposing most federal government action.

What then can U.S. citizens do to support changing the filibuster rule? I propose the following:

  1. Sign the electronic petition supporting the change.
  2. Write an email or letter to the Senators and Senators-Elect who are the initiators of the petition thanking them for doing so: Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tom Harkin, Amy Klobuchar, Jeanne Shaheen and Elizabeth Warren.
  3. Write to other Senators and Senators-Elect (Angus King, Maria Cantwell, Tammy Baldwin, Martin Heinrich, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy) who have publicly stated the need for changing the rule and urge them to join the petition campaign.
  4. Write to Majority Leader Harry Reid and urge him to press forward with changing the rule by a simple majority vote.
  5. Write to Democratic Senators (Carl Levin, Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill and Daniel Inouye) and Senator-Elect Joe Donnelly who have expressed opposition or skepticism about the simple-majority-vote approach and urge them to change their minds and support this approach for the filibuster rule.
  6. Write to the Senators from your State and urge them to support changing the filibuster rule by a simple majority vote.
  7. Write letters to the editors of newspapers and express your support for this effort.

Contact information, including email forms, for current Senators is available on the web. You will have to search for similar information for Senators-Elect.


[1] The recent developments discussed in this post are drawn from the following sources: Noah, Die, Filibuster, Die, New Republic (Nov. 16, 2012), http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/magazine/110215/die-filibuster-die;Weisman, The Senate’s Long Slide to Gridlock, N.Y. Times (Nov. 24, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/25/us/politics/new-senates-first-task-will-likely-be-trying-to-fix-itself.html?hp&_r=1&pagewanted=print&;Raju, GOP warns of shutdown over filibuster, Politico (Nov. 25, 2012), http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=ACE6831F-56E7-419A-8137-85D3D3E7BF5E; McAuliff, Mitch McConnell: Filibuster Fight Is An Unnecessary “Bomb” in the Senate, Huffington Post (Nov. 27, 2012), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/27/mitch-mcconnell-filibuster_n_2200494.html?utm_hp_ref=politics; Bernstein, No, Republican obstruction isn’t because Harry Reid is mean to them,  Wash. Post (Nov. 27, 2012), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/post/no-republican-obstruction-isnt-because-harry-reid-is-mean-to-them/2012/11/27/232d2276-38dc-11e2-9258-ac7c78d5c680_blog.html; Collins, Happy Talking, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/opinion/collins-Happy-Talking.html?pagewanted=print; Steinhauer, Resistance on Method for Curbing Filibuster, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/us/politics/method-for-curbing-filibuster-faces-resistance.html?pagewanted=print.

Sign Petition for Reform of U.S. Senate Filibuster Rule!

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon is leading a campaign for a petition of public support for the Senate´s passing “meaningful filibuster reform as its first order of business when the new Congress begins” in early January 2013. He is joined in this campaign by  five other Senators—Tom Udall of New Mexico, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Jeanne  Shaheen of New Hampshire–and by Senator-Elect Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

I have signed this petition and urge all other U.S. citizens to do the same. All of us also should write to these Senators and Senator-Elect  and applaud them for proposing the change while urging other Senators to join them.

I do so even though I do not like the proposed reform they are advocating. It calls for a new “Talking Filibuster” rule. It would retain a rule allowing a filibuster that would prevent voting on the merits of proposed legislation or other action unless 60 Senators vote to close debate, but would require filibustering Senators “to stand on the floor and make their case to the American people with a real talking filibuster!” (Now Senators can filibuster without making any speeches, and this makes filibustering too easy to invoke and too easy to abuse.)

Senator Merkley recently elaborated on this proposal. He said under “the proposed rules, if a cloture vote[to end debate failed to win a simple majority, the bill would be killed and the Senate would move to new business. But if it won a majority — though less than a supermajority of 60 — the bill would remain on the floor for any senator who wished to opine on it. If at some point no senator rose to speak, after given several chances to do so, a new vote would be called — and only a simple majority would be needed to pass it.” Merkley also said the not yet completed proposed change might also include eliminating the filibuster on motions to proceed to debate and restrictions on filibustering efforts to send a bill to conference.

Making any change to the Senate rules at the start of a new session of the Congress permits, they will argue, adoption of new rules by a simple majority vote, rather than the two-thirds requirement (67 votes) under the current rules for their amendment. (We can anticipate that some Senators will oppose the proposed change and will argue that a two-thirds vote is still required under a long-standing Senate practice that the Senate is a continuing body and that its rules continue from one Congress to the next.) I strongly favor the argument that only a simple majority vote is necessary for these changes when the new Congress meets for the first time.

Perhaps this group of reformers believes that their modest change is the only one that stands a chance of obtaining at least 51 votes for adoption. If so, then this political judgment must be respected by the citizenry even though, in my opinion, it is not sufficient to stop abuse of the filibuster. Indeed, as discussed in prior posts, I believe this rule should be eliminated in its entirety.

The seven organizers of the petition apparently have the important backing of the current Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, who  said at a November 7th press conference that filibuster reform will happen in the new Congress. Reid is proposing some modifications to the filibuster rule — most notably to eliminate the possibility of filibustering efforts to begin debate on legislation. “I think that the rules have been abused and that we’re going to work to change them,” Reid said. “We’re not going to do away with the filibuster, but we’re going to make the Senate a more meaningful place, we’re going to make it so that we can get things done.”

Changing the filibuster rule also has the support of seven other Senators-Elect: Angus King of Maine, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Tom Kaine of Virginia and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Earlier posts have discussed my criticism of the filibuster as well as the pending federal court lawsuit by Common Cause challenging the constitutionality of the rule.

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Open Letter to Members of the U.S. Senate in the Upcoming 113th U.S. Congress

As a Christian and a citizen of the United States and Minnesota and a Democrat, I address these comments to all members of the U.S. Senate in the upcoming 113th U.S. Congress.

First, congratulations to everyone who was elected or re-elected on November 6, 2012! And congratulations and thank you to those who will continue to be members of the Senate. You all know that you have serious obligations to “We the People” of the U.S. as well as to the citizens of your own states.

Second, when you convene in early January 2013, I plead with you to adopt new rules by a simple majority vote and shake off the “dead hand of history” practice that the Senate is a continuing body with continuing rules and that those rules (XXII (2)) require a two-thirds vote to amend the rules, including the rule on cloture or filibuster. Those new rules should abolish the filibuster.[1]

In this regard, I am pleased that at least the following Senators-elect have made statements favoring some kind of changes to the filibuster rule:

    • Angus King (I) Maine – “The Senate’s recent overuse of the filibuster has stalled progress on practically every issue of importance in America. The 60-vote requirement that it creates is not in the Constitution.”
    • Maria Cantwell (D) Washington – “I’m not going back to the United States Senate to salute stalemate.”
    • Tammy Baldwin (D) Wisconsin – “There have been a number of proposals that say you start with a 60-vote threshold, and maybe after a month, it is lowered — until a point that after a matter has been pending in the Senate for a very long time — where everyone has had adequate opportunity for input — the threshold needed to move forward would be a simple majority.”
    • Martin Heinrich (D) New Mexico – co-sponsored house measure to force reform in the Senate in 2010.
    • Mazie Hirono (D) Hawaii – “Washington is indeed broken and part of the problem is the misuse and abuse of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. Senator Tom Udall has proposed several ways in which the filibuster could be reformed that I believe warrant further discussion including: eliminating secret holds and requiring Senators that use the filibuster to stay on the Senate floor during a filibuster. These proposals could potentially bring transparency and efficiency to the Senate and help increase the public’s confidence in Congress”
    • Tom Kaine (D) Virginia – “A filibuster has had a venerable historical purpose, and the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, I would leave that where it is. But I would make anybody who filibusters anything to have to stand on the floor of the Senate, and stand up and say, ‘This is why I’m acting to block … whatever’s going on.’ Because at the end of the day, the American public ought to be entitled to know whether the filibusterer is like Jimmy Stewart in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ or just an SOB who wants to stand in the way of progress, you know?”
    • Chris Murphy (D) Connecticut – “The filibuster is in dire need of reform. Whether or not it needs to go away, we need to reform the way the filibuster is used, so it is not used in the order of everyday policy, but is only used in exceptional circumstances.”
    • Elizabeth Warren (D) Massachusetts – “We need to reform the filibuster, beginning with a requirement that anyone who wants to stop the people’s business must go out onto the Senate floor and actually filibuster, live and in person, so that the American people see precisely who is creating gridlock.”

In addition, Senator Harry Reid, the current Majority Leader, said at a November 7th press conference that filibuster reform will happen in the new Congress. Reid is not proposing to eliminate the delaying tactic — which requires 60 votes and days to overcome. But he is proposing some modifications — most notably to eliminate the possibility of filibustering efforts to begin debate on legislation. “I think that the rules have been abused and that we’re going to work to change them,” Reid said. “We’re not going to do away with the filibuster, but we’re going to make the Senate a more meaningful place, we’re going to make it so that we can get things done.”

Third, I urge the Democrats and the Republicans to elect new leaders. Senators Reid and McConnell should be congratulated for their service in this capacity, but new leaders perhaps would make it easier to effectuate better bipartisan cooperation. It might also be useful in this regard if two of the 20 female Senators in the next session became leaders of their parties.

Fourth, all Senators should remember that power and fame are fleeting. Don’t overplay your hand!

[1] I have written many posts about the filibuster and the need for its abolition or severe restriction.