Filibuster Reform

Some would say that the Senate took a positive step today with its reforms (resulting from a bipartisan agreement between Senators Reid and McConnell) of the filibuster.  Others, including Ezra Klein in the following piece, feel that the reforms are essentially meaningless.  Please share your thoughts.

Harry Reid: “I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold”

By Ezra Klein , Updated: January 24, 2013

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have come to a deal on filibuster reform. The deal is this: The filibuster will not be reformed. But the way the Senate moves to consider new legislation and most nominees will be.

“I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold,” Reid (D-Nev.) told me this morning, referring to the number of votes needed to halt a filibuster. “With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn’t and shouldn’t be like the House.”

What will be reformed is how the Senate moves to consider new legislation, the process by which all nominees — except Cabinet-level appointments and Supreme Court nominations — are considered, and the number of times the filibuster can be used against a conference report. You can read the full text of the compromise, which was sent out to Senate offices this morning, here (pdf).

But even those reforms don’t go as far as they might. Take the changes to the motion to proceed, by which the Senate moves to consider a new bill. Reid seemed genuinely outraged over the way the process has bogged down in recent years.

“What the Republicans have done is turn the motion to proceed on its head,” he argued. “It was originally set up to allow somebody to take a look at a piece of legislation. What the Republicans have done is they simply don’t allow me to get on the bill. I want to go to it on a Monday, they make me file cloture, that takes till Tuesday. Then it takes two days for the cloture vote to ‘ripen,’ so now it’s Thursday, and even if I get 60 votes, they still have 30 hours to twiddle their thumbs, pick their nose, do whatever they want. So, I’m not on the bill by the weekend, and in reality, that means next Monday or Tuesday.”

But the deal Reid struck with McConnell doesn’t end the filibuster against the motion to proceed. Rather, it creates two new pathways for moving to a new bill. In one, the majority leader can, with the agreement of the minority leader and seven senators from each party, sidestep the filibuster when moving to a new bill. In the other, the majority leader can short-circuit the filibuster against moving to a new bill so long as he allows the minority party to offer two germane amendment that also can’t be filibustered. Note that in all cases, the minority can still filibuster the bill itself.

A pro-reform aide I spoke to was agog. “Right now, you have to negotiate with McConnell to get on a bill,” he said. “Tomorrow, if this passes, you still need to negotiate with McConnell to get on a bill. It changes nothing on how we move forward.”

The agreement also limits the number of times you can filibuster a bill after both the House and the Senate have agreed to it, and it limits the post-filibuster period on most nominations from 30 hours to two hours. Both reforms will speed the pace of the Senate a bit — the limit on post-cloture debate for nominations is particularly welcome among reformers — but neither is anything close to a game-changer. The question among some reformers, then, is what happened?

Last May, Reid shocked observers when he went to the Senate floor and apologized to Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Tom Udall (N.M.) for blocking their efforts to weaken the filibuster. “These two young, fine senators said it was time to change the rules of the Senate, and we didn’t,” Reid said then. “And they were right. The rest of us were wrong — or most of us, anyway. What a shame… If there were anything that ever needed changing in this body, it’s the filibuster rule, because it’s been abused, abused and abused.”

Reformers think Reid changed his mind again in December, after a series of amendments to the Defense Authorization bill went awry and he began to worry that a talking filibuster, if not properly managed on the floor, could actually mean no filibuster at all in some cases. Reid said as much to me during our interview. When I asked him why he didn’t go for Merkley’s talking filibuster proposal, he said he’d concluded that it actually does get rid of the 60-vote threshold. He was, instead, pursuing a gentleman’s agreement with McConnell to encourage more talking filibusters.

A second explanation for Reid’s early enthusiasm for reform might be that Reid needed to convince McConnell to strike a deal and that the only way to do that was to scare him a bit. “Whenever you change the rules here,” Reid said, “you have to show the other side you can change them with 51 votes.” It’s the fear of the partisan reforms, in other words, that leads to bipartisan reforms.

Reid still wants to keep Republicans a little scared. He recalled that earlier in the 112th session of Congress, Senate Republicans began filing motions to suspend the rules after their filibusters were broken. “They couldn’t win these votes,” Reid said. ”It just ate up time. I put up with it for awhile and then said no more. I went to the floor, and I said that’s dilatory. The chair said no, it isn’t. I overruled the chair, and now you can’t do that because I set a precedent. I’m capable of doing more of that.”

I asked Reid whether he really thought the filibuster could survive in a Senate where, in truth, the majority leader, alongside 49 other senators and the vice president, could change any rule they wanted.

“The only way we’ll get rid of the filibuster is if it continues to be abused,” he said. “Hopefully, what we’ll do here will stop some of the abuse, but what will happenif the minority continues to abuse the rules is we won’t get rid of the filibuster, but we’ll go to something like what [Sen. Tom] Harkin has pushed, where one vote is at 57, and then another vote is at 55.”

But for now, Republicans have little to fear. The filibuster is safe. Even filibusters against the motion to proceed are safe. And filibuster reformers have lost once again.

11 responses to “Filibuster Reform”

  1. 4mary says :

    It’s frustrating seeing the Senate spend so much time arguing about their own rules. This mean even LESS is getting done… (and it’s not like the bar was very high). I don’t think this changes things a whole lot though. People can still filibuster. Maybe the continued talks along with the minor adaptations to the rules will help to bring the abuse of filibuster down and back to it’s origin. I think that’s the best we can hope for as of now.

  2. Liz7 says :

    Ideally the threat of ending the filibuster would convince the Senate to maybe quit misusing it. But I don’t think this will work – the filibuster is constantly being criticized, frequently by members of the Senate themselves, but nothing has been done. The paradox of Congress is that if any changes to the system want to be made, Congress itself has to approve and implement them. The filibuster makes our government look like a joke. Senators standing on the floor reciting the phonebook or rambling incoherently is a pathetic misuse of this rule. But I don’t believe any Senator is prepared to give up this power, and this challenge to the filibuster will end soon.

  3. Kunaal7 says :

    Not ending filibusters shows a lack of reform, illustrating how alike both parties really are. They engage in obstructionism when the other party is in power so no party would want to change the current filibuster rule. One large reform to improve the system of filibustering would be a firm rule to publish the name(s) of the senator invoking the rule. With this new deal the minority party can filibuster whenever they want, with no repercussions – and even reduce debates from 30 hours to 4 hours, helping the minority party. It would help them because now they can filibuster with a lesser impact on other Senate business.

  4. AkhilP7 says :

    The filibuster exists in order to protect the minority party. If the Democrats were to become the minority party, then they too would like to keep the current filibuster proceedings as is. Nonetheless, there clearly is a need for reform because debates on bills go on for too much time and hearings are delayed due to cloture. Sure there are new ways of moving on to other bills. Perhaps changing the burden from the majority party to the minority party in order to sustain/end the filibuster might ease the issue of “obstructionism.” Also some of the reforms proposed by Sen. Merkley of Oregon, such as the “talking filibuster”, are great ways of ensuring that filibusters will not be abused but rather remain a way of voicing the minority party’s opinion.
    Ironically, many of these ideas have bipartisan agreement and are not being filibustered, something that clearly doesn’t occur on all other legislation, liberal or not.

  5. Lizzie1 says :

    The filibuster is an important part of making sure the minority has a voice, but it needs to be reformed, not removed. My idea of a perfect filibuster would be where it MUST go through the minority leader, forcing McConnell (or whoever the Senate Minority Leader is) to first decide if it’s a valid filibuster, and then if it is, compromise and discuss the bill with the majority leader. I think that the forced discussion could form better relationships between the two leaders and create a better Senate overall.

  6. sarahb7 says :

    The filibuster is a critical part of the Senate’s powers because it prevents abuse of the minority party by the majority party, but it also has become a major roadblock to making any sort of substantial progress in Congress. There should be the power to filibuster for Senators, but I agree that the process needs reform, perhaps limiting the number of times an individual can filibuster in a term, or requiring a small group of Senators to filibuster a bill together, so the actual act of filibustering requires, say, 5 senators to agree. This would hopefully make filibustering less of an abuse of power and restore it to its intended purpose.

  7. Ryan4 says :

    I agree with those above who stated that the filibuster should not be removed. Without it, the minority party has little defense against any one sided bills in the senate that would otherwise be passed without substantial opposition. I also agree, though, that it has become a major hinderance in the process of passing legislation in the senate. The concept in itself is very difficult to amend without giving an advantage to one party. As a result, I think it would both be beneficial and reasonable to say that there should be a limit on the amount of filibusters allowed by the minority party every year, to prevent the constant blockage of every piece of legislation. In addition, I believe the rules of cloture should also be amended in a way that takes into the consideration of the senate as a whole, not just the majority party. This would push them to a stalemate, forcing people from either party to compromise over parts of the bill.

  8. Chad4 says :

    I do not think it is in the best interest of the Senate to remove the ability to filibuster. Now, I do believe that possible reforms should be proposed, such as a limit on the amount of times it can be used or what kind of bills it can be used on. But I do not think removing the filibuster will help the Senate get more things done. The purpose of Congress, in my opinion, is not to get things done quickly, but rather to only pass bills that truly embody compromise and agreement among both parties. I believe that is why the filibuster is important to both parties because it protects the rights of the minority party so that compromise is needed for a bill to pass the Senate.

  9. robhrabchak4 says :

    In many cases I agree that the filibuster is an important tool in protecting minority rights, although this power has been abused especially in more recent years. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation filibuster is perhaps the most recent example of what I consider an abuse of this power. For a time sensitive vote such as this one, delaying the process does not benefit anyone. No new relevant information is coming out so a timely vote, no matter the result, should be a reasonable request of the Senate. I think reform that limits these abuses of power would be a sign of progress.

  10. bump7 says :

    I find that the filibuster is an essential piece in protecting the minority rights in Congress, but there are many issues in it that need to be worked out. My biggest change to it would be a limit to how many times a filibuster can be used during a Congressional Session, thus allowing more things to get done but the minority can still block certain bills. Whether you are against the filibuster or not it is quite obvious to all that Congress needs to become more efficient in their work. A reform to the filibuster can keep the ideas of the hold but also speed things up in Congress and allow them to get more things done, which is what everyone wants in the end.

  11. Paul1 says :

    Although more reform is most definitely needed, as everyone has said, I think we can only expect so much from this current (and probably next) congress. In order to reach the full reform that at least most of us want–“most of us” being PDS AP Gov students–we have to do something ourselves, either through petition or through electing new officials. We can’t expect a Senate that so heavily relies on the filibuster, for better or worse, to reform itself out of its own ability.

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