Everyone who has seen the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” remembers the image of an exhausted Jimmy Stewart single-handedly defeating a bill that threatened the nation. This romantic version of political history is more myth than fact.
It was never the intent of the framers of the Constitution to bestow the Senate minority with that kind of stopping power. It was James Madison who strongly opposed the idea of requiring a supermajority to prevent legislation from being rushed to a vote without proper deliberation. For two decades, the Senate held to Madison’s view and ended debates with a simple majority.
When the Senate changed the rule in the early 1800s, it wasn’t because they wanted the filibuster. They considered the rule unnecessary based on their years of experience, so no alternative procedure for terminating debate was instituted. The filibuster existed only in theory until 1937, and four years later it played a pivotal role during debate on chartering the Second Bank of the United States. When Senator Henry Clay tried to stop debate with a majority vote, a filibuster was threatened by Senator William King. Clay backed down after most of his Senate colleagues sided with King.
Although the filibuster became an established tradition, it was only used on rare occasions for most of our nation’s history. It wasn’t until the last fifty years that the filibuster emerged as a potent weapon in prominent Senate battles such as the 1960s civil rights legislation. More often than not, the filibuster has delayed or prevented the passage of important bills favored by a large majority of Americans.
The filibusters of today aren’t what they used to be. We no longer see senators standing in the senate chamber making their case to the American public. The image of an impassioned Jimmy Stewart pleading to the world has been consigned to the scrapheap of history. Today’s procedural filibuster is no more than a threat to oppose a bill. The Senate won’t even consider legislation unless it can round up 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, place a time limit on the debate and overcome a filibuster. Rather than face the protracted delay of an actual filibuster, votes are tabled based solely on the perceived threat of one.
All this maneuvering no longer takes place under the watchful eye of the voting public. Meeting secretly behind closed doors, anonymous senators in the minority can craft insurmountable roadblocks without saying a word. While it’s important that the majority respect the rights and opinions of the minority, the filibuster has morphed from an infrequently used tool to protect those rights into a potent obstruction to progress. Our system of “checks and balances” has evolved into a grossly abused process that severely undermines our democracy.
The minority should not be able to prevent a vote on any measure it opposes simply by threatening the majority. The filibuster has a long and storied history, but it’s now time to change it. Requiring 60 votes in the Senate to pass a bill is clearly not constitutional, but the courts have been unwilling to intervene when the rules have been challenged.
A recent suit on this point filed by Common Cause was dismissed by the District of Columbia federal court on the grounds that “reaching the merits of this case would require an invasion” into Senate procedures and “would thus express a lack of respect for the Senate.” It seems the only way this injustice will be corrected is by Senate action since the courts are very sensitive to the separation of powers doctrine.
Perhaps the most striking example of how pernicious this entire process has become was the recent episode involving a bill introduced by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The measure, proposed by the Obama administration, was based on an idea McConnell came up with during the 2011 debt ceiling face-off. It would allow the president to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling, and Congress could only override him with a veto-proof majority.
McConnell introduced the bill to prove that the Democratic majority lacked the votes to pass it. When Majority Leader Harry Reid called his bluff and called for a vote on the measure, McConnell backpedaled and invoked the filibuster rules to increase the passage threshold to 60 votes. In addition to a giant bout of embarrassment, McConnell suffered the notoriety of imposing the first self-filibuster in the history of the Senate.
This nonsense has to stop and it has to stop now. It makes no sense to permit a single, often-anonymous senator to block legislation and defeat the will of the people. If the filibuster can’t be completely abolished, significant changes must be made to ensure that it can only be employed under very limited circumstances. At a minimum, those blocking a bill must show themselves and be forced to sustain debate on the Senate floor. Anything less will result in continued gridlock at the expense of the American people who are demanding action.
Your strong support and vote for these positions are respectfully requested.