Filibuster Reform is Bad for the Nation

Posted by courage On January - 8 - 2011

The use of filibusters has a long history in Congress. The original intent of the Constitutional Framers was to allow lengthy debate in each chamber, on the premise that ideas as well as legislation should be fully examined when structuring legislation. The Founders believed full and unrestrained scrutiny of legislation would result in superior legislation. Each of the Congressional bodies is allowed according to Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution to determine the rules of its proceedings. Originally the rules created by each of the Congressional branches allowed for the use of a filibuster, often used by the minority party to prevent a vote on a particular piece of legislation. In the dawning days of our republic the filibuster was used, admittedly sparingly, by both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

As the country expanded, the addition of new states greatly increased the number of members in the House Representatives. With this increase, the concept of unrestrained commentary by Representatives became a hindrance in having legislation moved for the floor to a vote. The House changed their protocol to disallow filibusters and choose instead to limit debate time for its members. I believe this to be a wise move by the House, since the House of Representatives by design is supposed to be more responsive to the mood and opinion of the people in their district.

Today there are 435 members of the House, a number which if all members were allowed unlimited time to debate the merits of legislation would gridlock the chamber. Admittedly, in recent times this may be a good thing, but that’s a different post.

The Senate continues to allow unrestrained debate on all legislation. With only a 100 Senate members the time dedicated to debate is unlimited and allows for a full and open exploration of legislation prior to it being passed by the Senate. In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson urged the Senate to adopt a rule that would end open discussion on the floor of the Senate. The Senate, in response to Wilson’s urging, instituted Rule 22 which allows allowed for “cloture” on debate IF 2/3rds of the Senate voted in favor of cloture. Once cloture is passed, the remaining debate on the topic is limited by specific guidelines, with a maximum of 30 hours allowed for final debate. Then a vote on the legislation moves forward. In 1975, the Senate changed the percentage needed to institute cloture from the original 2/3rds majority to three-fifths or 60 votes in favor of the cloture petition.

Filibuster tactics were used by the Dixie Democrats in the 1960′s in attempts to derail the Civil Rights Act. Cloture was finally invoked after 57 days of debate and the Civil Rights legislation was passed by the Senate. The record for an individual filibuster is owed by South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond (D) when he effectively filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against early Civil Rights legislation in 1957.

Filibusters of legislation have been used to prevent good legislation from swift passage, but as with the Civil Rights Act, legislation which embodies the the spirit and breath of America will pass. The advantage of the filibuster is with legislation that is either far removed from the Constitutional authority granted Congress, or is so based on strict political ideology, the filibuster helps slow down the process of bad legislation making it into law. Does it always work to prevent liberty limiting laws from being enacted-NO, yet it does allow the minority party an avenue to slow the process, allowing in-depth analysis by both the political class and the public at large.

The Senate as envisioned by the Founders is meant to be the more deliberate, mature body of Congress. The concept that a majority party can run buckshot over legislation with no restriction or analysis of proposed laws is contrary to anything the Founders intended. Some like to claim that in the United States majority rules while falsely believing this country to be a democracy. Neither of these statements are true, majority rule becomes mob rule and this is why the Founders set up our government as a republic rather than a democracy. The voice of the minority is as important as that of the majority.

Filibuster reform is a mistake and will negatively affect how the federal government impacts lives. A Senate which passes legislation quickly with little analysis is nothing more than a mini House of Representative. Speed of legislation passage does not equate to better legislation in fact I would suggest the exact opposite; it results in bad legislation and an ever expansive government, which becomes more displaced from the concerns of the people. Senators as envisioned by the Founding Fathers should be statesmen with the ability to find consensus and negotiate in the face of unlimited debate. Removing the ability to filibuster allows the majority party to pass through any legislation they formulate, the next election cycle could see a flip in majority control consequentially legislation recently passed could be revoked.. which creates an unstable environment for the country.

It is time for Senate members to find consensus, to fully analyze legislation consider the negative ramifications of potential laws prior to passage. The ability to filibuster slows the process and makes for a more informed Senate and populace.

To send your Senator an email on the harmful effects of filibuster reform, a sample letter can be viewed here.

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