In the wake of Tea Partiers’ chronic screams of “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore” and the turnover of the House to Republican control, Democrats are making a valiant effort to reclaim public support through filibuster reform.
Interestingly, most editorials have focused on the pros, but politics is always multifaceted, and in this case the “reforms” proposed by the Democrats have some interesting cons.
The filibuster has been employed since the 1850s. It can only be used in the Senate, since it would delay the legislative process too much in the 435-member House. That is just what the filibuster is: a delay tactic. It can be used by the minority to delay a vote and to attract attention to a less-noticed issue.
The filibuster is a powerful tool, because it cannot be ended without the consent of a three-fifths supermajority of the Senate. As evidenced by the recent debate over healthcare reform, that makes it harder to pass legislation and makes the government work more slowly.
Americans are naturally aggravated by this retardation of the government, so what exactly is wrong with the Democrats’ attempt to reform this rambunctious process?
For starters, the Democrats are attempting to use a somewhat unfair tactic called the Mondale Method to pass these reforms. The Mondale Method would basically allow the Democrats to change the Senate rules using a simple majority vote: They would just argue that the Constitution allows use of a majority vote, even though the Senate rulebook doesn’t. Changing the rules through simple majority, which the Democrats have, clearly limits the ability of Republicans to dissent to the changes.
The reforms proposed by the Democrats seem as though they were an attempt to save the Senate a great deal of time, but they boil down to giving the minority less time to voice its opinions and giving the majority more time to do as it pleases.
When a bill is sent to the Senate for consideration, it is ultimately voted on twice. The first vote is called a motion to proceed and asks senators to vote on whether the bill should even come up for debate. The second vote actually determines whether the legislation in question passes. Currently filibusters are allowed on both of those votes, so it is possible for the Senate to spend a great deal of time “debating” (i.e. filibustering) a bill that will never actually be considered on the floor.
One of the proposed reforms proposed is to eliminate the filibuster for motions to proceed. Those who are outraged about the methods used this past year to barrel large amounts of important legislation through the Senate should be hesitant to embrace such “reform,” because with extra time it is likely that the majority will continue to do just that.
Another proposed reform, the “Mr. Smith” reform (derived from the filibuster shown in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) perhaps looks more appealing at first glance. This reform would force senators to stand up and talk during a filibuster, rather than placing a “hold” on a bill without ever giving a speech (The lengthy filibuster speeches most Americans picture are rarely what happens nowadays).
This proposal fixes only a surface-level symptom of the problems in the Senate. Even if senators were forced to talk during filibusters, they would probably find their audience missing: Senators often come to the floor only during important votes or if they are giving a speech and rarely stick around to actually debate, let alone listen to a time-sucking filibuster.
Therefore the reform needed doesn't have to do with the filibuster-it has to do with the Senate itself. If either party truly wants reform, it should force senators to do their job and remain on the floor during debate instead of attending to other business while the Senate is in session.
Before pledging allegiance to filibuster reform, consider the purpose of American government. Government, especially the Senate, was deliberately designed to move slowly. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, “Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.” In other words, Americans, be patient!