The Filibuster Charade
By PETER FENN
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The filibuster fight going on in the Senate is the tragic undoing of majority rule. The sad fact is that Senators, the press and the public have accepted the notion that it takes 60 votes to pass almost any piece of legislation – a super majority.
That is completely contrary to what was envisioned by our founding fathers and what was in place for over 200 years. Only a relatively few cases were established for a super majority: impeachment, eviction of members, votes on treaties, constitutional amendments.
Regular legislation and approval of presidential nominees were done by a vote of the majority. Debate on the Senate floor was part and parcel of the institution and Senators could pull a Wendy Davis or Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
The filibuster rule was established in 1917 to require Senators to talk around the clock before a two-thirds vote stopped debate. The key was you had to hold the floor, you had to actually “filibuster,” you could not just threaten a filibuster as you can today.
In the first 50 years until the late 1970s, the filibuster was used 35 times, mostly during high-visibility civil rights bills, and cots were set up off the Senate floor. This, you can imagine, was rather discouraging to Senators who both wanted to move other legislation and go home to their families and sleep in their own beds.
In less than six years since becoming leader in 2007, Mitch McConnell has led 417 filibusters. That is not a typo – 417.
The result is paralysis, pure and simple. The result is that the passage of legislation of any import needs at least 60 votes. This isn’t even really a filibuster, it’s a fake filibuster, a locked-in super majority. Republicans have abused it, seriously abused it, by even holding up presidential nominees for months. This is what Harry Reid is now dealing with in the Senate.
But the problem is that if this so-called filibuster is accepted as normal and regular order and the way the Senate does business, every party that wants to obstruct will believe they have the right to do so. It is an escalating arms race. Right now, 16 states have required a two-thirds vote in their legislatures to raise taxes and many have other super majority requirements for other bills. This is a bad road to go down that leads to paralysis and inaction and endless frustration.
If a filibuster is to exist, it should be a real filibuster. No other legislation can proceed, the people who believe so strongly in an issue must hold the floor 24/7. The country will focus on the debate just as they did during the civil rights struggle. Members would be held accountable.
By continuing the filibuster charade we have altered the Senate to make it nearly unrecognizable to many of us who worked there in years past. It has devastated the institution and harmed the country. It is way past time for the Senate to get back to majority rule, and jettison super majority rule.
Hopefully, the events of this week can lead to that.