Democrats Take up the Good Fight to Reform the Senate
With polls showing an 83% disapproval rating, few people would argue that the Congress isn’t broken. Fewer still would not assign a great deal of blame on a completely dysfunctional Senate. With more than 400 pieces of legislation passed by the House only to die in the Senate of the 111th Congress, the more “deliberative body” has truly become a haven for obstructionism. But that might all change if Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) succeeds in his attempt to reform the filibuster.
In response to a Senate minority that has utterly corrupted the use of the filibuster, Senator Udall, along with fellow Democratic Senators, Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), and Michael Bennet (Colo.), are leading the way to bring back some form of integrity to this aged parliamentary procedure.
Not mentioned in the Constitution, the filibuster is the product of senatorial rule changes established in 1806 that removed the motion “to move the previous question” and effectively eliminated any ability to end debate on an issue and move to a vote. Yet, even once the potential for filibuster existed, it wasn’t until 1837 that the procedure was first used, and its use remained infrequent for decades.
In 1917, the Senate changed its rules again and created a means to end a filibuster; by invoking cloture, the motion to end debate would be subject to passage by a two-thirds majority vote. Under these rules, the filibuster remained a powerful yet seldom used maneuver that resulted in only 56 filings of cloture through the end of the 91st Congress in 1970.
But starting with the 92nd Congress, things began to change and cloture was filed 23 times during that Senate alone. With 44 filings in the subsequent Senate, it became clear that what was once a rare procedural maneuver was becoming a mainstay for the Senate minority. This led to another rule change in 1975 that redefined the super-majority needed to end a filibuster, setting it at three-fifths — the 60 votes required today.
While use of the filibuster had become more frequent, it wasn’t until the past two Congresses that use was turned to abuse. Cloture filings averaged only 36.4 for each Congress from 1971 through 1990, and started ramping up with the Republican minority of the 102nd Congress, but still averaged only 51.5 from 1971 through 2006. Starting in 2007, with the 110th Congress, complete and utter obstruction was introduced and the tyranny of the minority began.
Viewed historically as a means to ensure that major issues were given a full and fair hearing, the contemporary corruption of the filibuster process has led instead to complete obstruction and the inability of the Senate to conduct even the most routine business. The Republican minorities of the 110th and 111th Congress made the filibuster standard operating procedure, using the procedure to block anything and everything, with no other goal than to impede progress.Continued on the next page