The rules of the United States Senate have received quite a bit of press coverage over the last year as our current political climate has set the stage for a wonderful set of lessons in American government.
While reconciliations are complex and cumbersome, a filibuster is clear-cut. The senate floor is a place for open debate and when a senator has the floor it is his or hers until they yield it.
If a senator wishes to block a piece of legislation, they can simply hold the floor as long as they can keep talking. The check to the filibuster is cloture, or a vote to end debate.
Clotures require 60 votes instead of 51; that is why most senate business requires 60 affirmative votes.
Every so often, the party in power suggests the filibuster is obstructing the business of the people and should be reformed to limit or end its use. The Republicans talked about this during the Bush administration and Senator Harry Reid is talking about it now.
Senator Reid, who fiercely opposed such reforms while in the minority, is now saying that “…we’re going to take a look at the filibuster… We are likely to have to make some changes in it, because the Republicans have abused that just like the spitball was abused in baseball and the four-corner offense was abused in basketball.”
His change of heart, as told by a group of liberal bloggers, has three fatal flaws.
The first is quite simple. Senator Reid used the pronoun “we.” If Senator Reid is waiting until the next Congress to enact such a reform, it will have to go on without him because all of the recent polls regarding his reelection bid in Nevada show him trailing by double digits.
When it comes to discussing the next congress and what they might do, Senator Reid is foolish to suggest he will be a part of it.
The second flaw is also pretty straightforward. It takes 67 votes to change Senate rules. It would take more senators to eliminate the filibuster than it would to end a filibuster.
By all accounts, the Democrats will lose seats in the Senate this year and even if they hold the majority, they will not have the votes to change senate rules.
In other words, if the leadership can’t line up 60 votes now, they certainly won’t be able to get 67 votes next January.
The final flaw is a bit less obvious, but far more important. The filibuster is a good thing and should remain in place. Open debate is beneficial and it is part of a healthy legislature. If they kill the filibuster, they will make the senate a more tyrannical place. Congress ought to be a place of deliberation and of thoughtful decision making. Eliminating the filibuster will only hurt the quality of system.
Requiring 60 votes ensures that the leadership reaches out to minority interests when crafting legislation.
It ensures that our legislators slow down and consider their votes. It ensures the process takes time and that our lawmakers work together and compromise.
To those who say the filibuster is abused and obstructs the work of the people, consider this: rarely is a filibuster the work of a single man. It takes 41 senators to allow a filibuster and those 41 represent more than 120 million citizens.
A filibuster isn’t the vehicle of radicals; it is a fail safe for Americans who are in the slight minority.
The filibuster is one of the great political traditions in this country and it ought to remain that way. We glorify the filibuster in film and television and for good reason.
Senator Reid and his allies should retract their comments about changing the filibuster. The American people can see through the hollow, politically-motivated attacks on this centuries-old parliamentary procedure.
If they’re looking for a way for make the legislature more partisan, by all means, kill the filibuster. But if they’re looking for a way to make congress more thoughtful, embrace it.
The filibuster raises the level of debate in this country and we should welcome it. We are at our best when challenged by those who disagree.
Let’s continue to have open debate in the senate; we will be a better country because of it.