The Senate is being held hostage! It must be the Democrats! No, it’s the Republicans! It is a siege against democracy, contrary to the Founder’s beliefs!
We have been hearing a lot about the filibuster since the early onset of the Great Recession, when Republicans witnessed the loss of its of supermajority powers after public anger swept through the incumbent party. Congress’ disastrous 78.4% public disapproval rating comes as no shock with the political atmosphere becoming increasingly multipolar and parties becoming more deeply entrenched in their respective ideologies. It is understandable that tense and long debates can cause a political gridlock on large issues of national interest with parties trying to sway policy and opinion in their favor. However, the current political situation delved into the “pathetic and petty” realm as the use of filibuster tactic drastically increased to include basic government functions like cabinet and judge appointments and basic annual funding legislation for basic government operations.
A filibuster is a type of Congressional procedure that gives an individual or group to the right to an unlimited debate that can effectively delay or even cancel a decision vote on the issue at hand. Naturally, many would decry this tactic as a gross injustice targeted against the majority party and thus the majority of the American people, contrary to the vision of the Founding Fathers. But it is also important to recognize the importance of the filibuster as a tool for the minority to ensure its voice is heard and prevent the majority from steamrolling all its legislation into law. Yet, when one turns on C-SPAN or watches clips of Senate floor debates undergoing a filibuster, the hilarity of the scene can understandably cause resentment by some in the public sphere. Some of the most memorable (and controversial) Senate debates in U.S. history occurred during a filibuster. Senator Strom Thurmond, a fierce supporter of state’s rights vowed to challenge any encroachment of federal power upon the states. In 1957, with no party holding a supermajority to invoke cloture on filibusters, Senator Thurmond took to the podium to defeat a proposed voting rights bill (H.R. 6127). Gathering all his reading material (from state election statutes to Supreme Court dissertations) and armed with sandwiches made by his wife, he spoke for a staggering 24 hours and 18 minutes without any breaks. The bill was defeated. Another amusing yet sad example came from Senator Byrd and his Senate colleagues trying to prevent the passage of the now famous Civil Rights Act of 1964. Byrd spoke nonstop for 14 days and other speakers rallied around him to continue the filibuster for 57 consecutive working days. However, the bill passed with a large majority. Given this rather extreme example of filibuster-ing, it comes as no surprise that many see this tactic no longer as a legitimate tool for the minority but one that can virtually shut down the legislative branch.
During this current Congressional session (2010-2012), the minority Republicans have held an impressive 62 filibusters. Democrats are at fault as well. The more regular use of the filibuster actually began under the Clinton Administration. Washington-based watchdog Common Cause recently filed a lawsuit in U.S. Federal District Court of Washington D.C. to remove the filibuster from Senate rules. The group argues that the Senate can indeed set its own rules on how the chamber functions but not if that rule is deemed unconstitutional. More specifically, Senate rule XXII requires a 60% “supermajority” (60 votes out of 100) to end a never-ending filibuster (cloture), not a simple majority of 51 votes. Common Cause cites that the Constitution only explicitly calls for a supermajority like ratifying treaties and impeachment (2/3 majority) or adding new amendments to the Constitution (3/4 majority). Since the Founders took the time to specifically state what constitutes a supermajority, the group argues a valid point that Senate rule XXII can be challenged on its merits of constitutionality since Senate rules are not mentioned as part of a supermajority requirement, thus it would have to be a simple majority.
The lawsuit provides a thought-provoking and compelling reason to force the Senate to end filibusters through a simple majority, yet it will definitely be hard to overturn two centuries of established Congressional tradition. However, the approach that Common Cause takes to tackle this problem is brilliant and should be given praise. The group seeks to force change to Senate rules through the judicial system and not the legislative branch – for good reason. Simply put: politicians in the majority, whether Republican or Democrat, love to hate the filibuster. Yet, majorities always fall into minorities. That is life in politics. Those in power can chastise the filibuster but they know once they are relegated to minority status, they will hold onto that valuable tool for dear life. Politicians won’t change their own backyard rules, meaning the people are powerless on this front. For once in America, this lawsuit has merits so let’s all rally behind….the lawyers!
– Alex Gardinier