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Senate filibuster reform falls short

The Senate filibuster in its current form undermines our government’s underlying principal of majority rule and is a roadblock to our nation’s legislative process. Although the Senate recently passed new filibuster rules, these new rules apply only to “motions to proceed,” not to debates on the actual Senate bills.

The need for filibuster reform was addressed at U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s town hall meeting in the Danny Lang Center on Jan. 7. A member of the audience asked the senator about the possibility of filibuster reform in the new congress.

Sen. Wyden responded that his colleague in the Senate, Jeff Merkley, was working on a proposal to reform the filibuster. Merkley’s proposal would go further than recent changes, holding members accountable who choose to lodge a filibuster.

The filibuster is a tactic used in the Senate whereby a member who is opposed to a piece of legislation attempts to block it by holding debate open. The tactic has been outlawed in the House of Legislation since 1842.

The filibustering senator, in the past, was required to stand and talk continually until other senators decided to remove the piece of legislation from the floor. Currently, even with the new filibustering rules, senators can filibuster without talking or even being in the Senate building.

Strom Thurmond once filibustered a civil rights bill for over 24 hours and ended up expounding on his mother’s biscuit recipe before it was done.

A filibuster is so repugnant that eventually senators will pressure the sponsor of the bill to remove it so that the filibuster will stop. In a successful filibuster, the senator who proposes the bill pulls it from the floor so the senate can try and accomplish something.

Merkley, Oregon’s U.S. senator, did undertake a senate filibuster reform that would have reinstated what he refers to as the “talking filibuster” where the individual talking must be present. Unfortunately, it didn’t fly, so senators can still call in from the racquet ball court to filibuster instead of reading their biscuit recipes from the floor.

Merkley, who worked hard to introduce reform, would have also required 41 senators to be present on the floor in order to sustain a filibuster. Merkley’s proposal, in my opinion, was the bare minimum that needs to be done, but it didn’t happen.

Merkley’s efforts were blocked by Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who struck a deal with his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Reid’s deal does little to reform the filibuster.  The bulk of the Reid-McConnell reforms affect only the time limit on “post cloture debate.”

Cloture is any vote to end debate and is the way to override a filibuster.

Reid presented McConnell, the Republican minority leader, with a proposal similar to Merkeley’s. Then Reid proposed the toothless reform that eventually passed.

Reid had the votes in the Senate to do what really needed to be done with the filibuster and the Constitutional authority to do it. Unfortunately, rather than passing true reform with a party line vote among the Democratic majority, Reid chose the weaker reform presumably to avoid appearing partisan.

The entire problem with the filibuster is that it allows one senator to derail anything from happening. The U.S. Government was constructed on the principals of majority rule with ample checks and balances. The filibuster came in to being as a way for someone in the minority to put a stop to a bill that they felt was truly objectionable.

It was intended to be an extreme measure and it required a self-immolating display of commitment to undertake. Unfortunately, it has become an informal and commonplace tactic that is often used to derail legislation simply because it was proposed by the opposition.