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How Filibusters Are Strangling the Senate

Bob Fuss


The Senate filibuster has turned what some have called the "greatest deliberative body" into a place where passing the simplest bill takes days or weeks and a major bill like health reform ends up in a month-long slog of round the clock and weekend sessions and a final vote on Christmas Eve.

Far from a tool to insure that debate is not cut off before everyone has his say, it has become a routine method by which the Senate is bogged down to the point where it becomes almost impossible to get things done.

Republicans have used more than 100 filibusters this year, frequently on bills they fully support, such as funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea isn't to keep debate going -- it is simply to slow things down and make it harder for Democrats to run the Senate. Though Republicans have been far more aggressive about it, Democrats did the same thing when they were in the minority.

The modern filibuster is not like the drama of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" where Jimmy Stewart played a principled senator standing up to corruption -- talking on the Senate floor until he lost his voice and collapsed.

Now the filibuster is simply automatic and assumed and the result is nothing can pass without 60 votes and those votes can be delayed for days on end. No one talks until they are hoarse and in fact during the lengthy multiple filibusters on the health reform bill, most of the time no one was talking at all as the staff presided over an empty Senate chamber.

The filibuster is not used to prevent debate from being stopped prematurely, it is used to replace majority rule with super-majority rule. It has been decades since a party has had the super-majority of 60 votes in the Senate Democrats now enjoy, but the result is not the ability to pass whatever they want. Instead it has resulted in any individual Democrat having a veto over whatever the majority wants and using it, as Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson (seen at left) did on health reform, to exercise outsized power.

There is nothing in the Constitution that allows filibusters and in fact the Senate started out with the same rule that works in the House and virtually every state legislature, city hall and high school student council -- allowing a simple majority vote to end debate. The Senate after an odd rule change in 1806 had no way to end debate, then required a two-thirds vote and now three-fifths. It can change the rule again at any time.

Republicans threatened to do away with the filibuster in 2005 when they were upset at Democrats blocking some of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. They called it the "nuclear option" and it terrified members of both parties and was never carried out. If Democrats get rid of the filibuster now, they know they will have less power at some point in the future when Republicans win the majority back.

But the fact that a party with 60 votes still can't make the Senate operate in any reasonable way suggests it may be time to take another look.

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