What the Filibuster is Going on in D.C.?

By Michael Glantz on December 4, 2012


Photo from Calwatchdog.com

If you’re like most Americans you’re probably wondering why things on Capitol Hill have gotten so dysfunctional recently. After all, the current 112th congress has only passed 200 public laws, the lowest level since World War II. So, what could possibly be the cause of this abysmal output? The short answer is: the filibuster, an endless debate on the senate floor to keep legislation from being put up to a vote. If you’ve ever seen the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, his speech at the end was a typical filibuster.

How is this causing all of the gridlock?

It’s a bit of a fuzzy picture, but in order to get past a filibuster, the senate must invoke something called cloture, which forcibly stops all debate, by a three-fifths majority or 60-40 assuming all senators vote. The process of invoking cloture takes up a lot of time by itself and even if a cloture motion passes, there are six other points in the process at which an opponent of the legislation can filibuster.

Now, one might argue that the filibuster is a crucial tool for the minority to check the power of the majority and I would completely agree. The problem with the filibuster stems from the fact that there aren’t really any criteria limiting the filibuster. Any senator can filibuster any bill for any reason and most of the time the filibuster is applied to a “motion to proceed”, which is how bills make it to the floor, so most filibustered bills aren’t even debated, undermining the very concept. Until recently, filibusters were extremely rare and when they did come up people took notice because these senators were talking for over 24 hours.

Why then aren’t we hearing about these marathon speeches day in and day out?

Photo from ncpeaceaction.org

Because they’re not happening. There isn’t a lot of filibustering going on in congress but there is much threatening to filibuster. These “silent filibusters” happen before the bill makes it to the floor. The reason threats of filibustering are just as effective as actually filibustering has to do with senate majority leaders of both parties wanting to get things done. If a senator informs the majority leader that he or she intends to filibuster, normally the majority leader will just remove that from the agenda because a 60-vote majority for cloture is rarely attainable in congresses as divided as in recent times.

How should we go about fixing this problem?

Recent efforts of Democrats in the senate have shown a desire to reform the rules of filibustering so that any work can get done in congress.

    • By October of 2012, this congress had only passed 2.8% of the bills that made it to the floor as illustrated in the graph above. Congress works based on simple 51-49 majority most of the time; requiring a super majority of 60 votes or more is only called for in very specific circumstances. Due to the current abuse of the filibuster, however, the minority party has the power to make a 60 vote majority the de facto requirement to getting any legislation passed.
    • Democrats are proposing a change to the way filibusters happen in order to restrict the number of opportunities to filibuster, especially concerning filibustering a bill before it reaches the floor, and filibustering a bill before it goes to conference committee.
    • The biggest proposed change is to require what proponents are calling a “talking filibuster” wherein a senator who wants to block legislation must stand on the floor and make their case for as long as they want to block the bill, or, to put it another way, filibuster exactly the way senators used to filibuster.

Are the Republicans okay with these proposed changes

Don’t be silly! The Republicans are pretty upset by these proposed changes.

    •  The current senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says that his party’s opposition to the filibuster change comes from their frustration over being denied the opportunity to add amendments to bills because all the available slots had been filled by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nv.). He says that because of this “amendment tree filling” the filibuster is the only way Republicans have their voices heard.

 I take issue with this stance for many reasons. The amendment tree has been filled by Reid during this congress but it has only happened 22 times. To further confound the issue, Reid claims to have filled the tree because the amendments the republicans wanted to add were so called “poison pill amendments” designed to make the legislation unacceptable resulting in its failure to pass. To me, the idea that the filibuster is how Republicans currently get their voices heard is laughable because a bill can be filibustered before it’s debated, ensuring nobody’s voice is heard regarding that bill.

What I think is perfectly clear to anyone who looks at the congress today is, something absolutely has to be done.

If the minority party (though both parties are guilty) can’t be trusted with the power of the filibuster, then rules need to be adopted that facilitate debate without derailing the legislative process. Our senate was intended to work with a simple majority, it’s time we do away with this partisan tactic that necessitates a supermajority. The filibuster is important and gives the minority ample opportunity to give their side of things and stir up debate but that’s only when they actually make use of the filibuster instead of just threatening it in order to stall legislation.

Besides, it would be a tragedy for them to throw away something that’s as much fun to say as filibuster.

I am a sophomore at the University of Denver studying Film and English. I am deeply interested in Politics and the role of the U.S. in the world at large.

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