The filibuster should not be eliminated; it should be restored to its proper function. That’s the takeaway from the muddled debate over how the Senate should reorganize itself.
Since Democrats retook control of the chamber in 2006, GOP obstruction has made a mockery of the very American principle of majority rule, and of the equally American principle of respect for the minority. Although Democrats have had sufficient numbers to approve resolutions, nominations and legislation, debates and votes have repeatedly been thwarted by Republicans who, in the words of majority whip Richard Durbin, have made the chamber “dysfunctional by the use of filibusters.” We would quibble only with the word “use.” Durbin should have said “abuse of filibusters.”
Historically, the filibuster was a protection against the silencing of the minority. Under traditional Senate rules, members who did not have the votes to stop approval of a piece of legislation or a nomination could demand to be heard in opposition—standing on the Senate floor and expounding for hours on end. Ideally, the theory went, such dissent could prevent a rush to judgment, rally popular support, and perhaps change the course of history. In recent years, however, Republicans have used the filibuster to block deliberations on key issues, thus making it harder for the president to advance popular proposals and undermining the constitutional premise of advice and consent.
Noting the 386 GOP-led filibusters during his almost six years as majority leader, Harry Reid says, “We can’t continue like this.” The obstructionist strategies of Republicans, he argues, have “made it an almost impossible task to get things done.” Reid, whose incoming caucus is larger and more supportive of reform than the one he led in the last Senate, has the authority to ask senators to set new rules at the opening of the coming session. Indications are that he is preparing to do just that, seeking an end to secretive abuses of the filibuster on motions to proceed. This would allow the Senate to take up legislation or nominations. At the same time, Reid is reportedly considering a requirement that senators appear on the floor and speak when filibustering—as senators once did, and as Americans saw Jimmy Stewart do in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
These proposals are not an attack on the filibuster. Rather, what Reid and the Democrats are considering is a return to its use as it was portrayed in that classic 1939 film. Senators would still be free to launch filibusters to prevent the end of debate on matters of consequence, and they could use them to at least temporaarily block a final vote on a piece of legislation.
So why is minority leader Mitch McConnell decrying these sensible adjustments as a “naked power grab”? Why has House Speaker John Boehner gone so far as to say his Republicans would reject Senate legislation that restores the filibuster to its rightful role? The answer is that Republicans are not interested in principled dissent; they want to control the Senate from a minority position.
The best response by Democrats would be to stand up to GOP bullying and call the party’s bluff. Let the Republicans go to the American people with the argument that Congress should not encourage real debate, honest votes and majority rule. They will lose that fight. As Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a leading proponent of the rule changes, says, “The public believes that filibustering senators have to hold the floor. Indeed, the public perceives the filibuster as an act of principled public courage and sacrifice. Let’s make it so.” Yes, let’s make it so.