The Importance of the Filibuster

Yesterday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called for a vote to change the Senate’s rules to allow cloture to be invoked on minority filibusters of presidential appointments with a majority vote rather than the three-fifths (60 out of 100) vote that was previously required.  While the issue of filibuster reform isn’t new to the Senate (Reid threatened to change the rules earlier this year) it is the first time that the rule change has actually occurred.  Senator Reid, along with numerous Democrats, has argued that this rule change is necessary due to the drastic increase in the number of filibusters used over the past few years and in particular during President Obama’s time in the White House.  Republicans, on the other hand, argue that, although this change only applies to presidential appointments and not legislation or Supreme Court nominations the rule change would haunt the chamber for years to come.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell even went so far as to call the rule change “nothing more than a power grab”.  It’s a controversial topic and one that, in my opinion, does merit some discussion.  However, this rule change is not the way to go about filibuster reform.  It may make the Senate function more quickly, but at the cost of the rights of the minority.

As a quick refresher, a filibuster is a tool used by the minority party to delay debate on or passage of a bill.  In a filibuster, a senator may speak on whatever topic he wants to and may speak for as long as he wishes so long as he speaks continuously and does not give up the floor to another senator.  The Founders included it in the original Senate rules as part of the legislative process for the purpose of giving a greater voice to the minority party.  As I noted previously, the Founders wanted the legislative process to be slow and deliberate rather than fast and rash.  They even mention the fear of a tyrannical majority overriding the minority several times in The Federalist Papers.  This made the filibuster that much more useful.  Not only would it allow the minority to voice its opinion on legislation with which they greatly disagreed, but it would keep laws from passing too quickly and potentially causing damage to the economy or, say, a government organization.  It would also prevent the president and his party from stacking the federal court system and/or the Supreme Court with judges that would simply rubber stamp their agenda.  This rule change, however, threatens to eliminate this vital part of the legislative process all together.

If all that is required to invoke cloture, forcibly ending a filibuster through a vote, is 51 votes then the majority party can essentially stop any filibuster by the minority that they wanted to, which would most likely be all of them.  As such, the majority would be able to pass any bill or approve any presidential appointment or Supreme Court nomination without the minority being able to do anything about it.  This gives the majority an unprecedented amount of power that, if misused, may turn tyrannical, something the Founding Fathers wanted to avoid.  The reason that the three-fifths mandate was included was to make it more difficult for the majority to silence the minority and thus let the minority voice its opinion more freely.  Now I recognize the fact that the rule change that occurred yesterday only affects the power to filibuster presidential appointments.  However, the same principle applies; the Democrats now have the ability to approve all of President Obama’s appointments without the possibility of Republicans getting the chance to bring about a reasonable debate as to the appointee’s qualifications.

That aside, though, Harry Reid’s push to restrict the minority’s ability to filibuster introduces other problems that may result in a more tyrannical rule of the majority over the minority.  The first problem is that by changing the rules regarding presidential appointments, Reid has opened the door for the same kind of rule change for legislation or Supreme Court nominees.  He has proven with this change that he has the votes to make it happen.  What would stop him from calling such a vote?  Some may argue that Senator Reid only intended this to be a temporary measure to reduce the number of Republican filibusters, but that brings me to the second problem with this rule change.  It is now highly unlikely that the rules will be changed back to their original form.  Again, you may say that this is only a temporary measure, but let me ask you this: what incentive would any majority party have to change the rules back?  The answer is that they would have none.  If the majority party (regardless of which party it is) can pass a bill or approve a nomination without the minority party being able to delay or prevent the bill or nomination from coming to a vote, why would they change the rules to allow the minority to do just that?  Exactly, they wouldn’t.

I’m not saying that the filibuster has absolutely no drawbacks; both parties have shown that, given the chance, they will abuse their power to filibuster simply to spite their opponent.  However, the costs to the democratic process are far too great to essentially eliminate the minority’s ability to filibuster all together.  Putting these kinds of restrictions on the filibuster will only serve to silence the minority in the long run.  There are other ways to go about filibuster reform.  The Senate could change the rules to require speakers to only talk about the bill or nominee being debated at the time.  The Senate could even put a time limit on filibusters so that the minority could still voice its opinion without completely preventing the Senate from doing its job.  Stripping the minority of their ability to filibuster will only lead to the majority exerting its will upon the Senate with no regard for the rights of the minority.  As Thomas Jefferson once said, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

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7 Responses to The Importance of the Filibuster

  1. Navy1630 says:

    When the liberals can’t get their agenda passed in the legislature, they move to the courts. And when they can’t pack the courts, they change the rules so that they can pack the courts. The president, VP and Senator Reid all lambasted Republicans in 2005 for hinting at this kind of action. Hypocrites!

  2. Nostodamus24 says:

    What comes around goes around. They’ll pay for it eventually.

    • jaketleech says:

      Maybe, though I wouldn’t want to take away the Democrat’s ability to filibuster. No majority is infallible, and besides, like I said, extending debate keeps the Senate from acting too quickly without considering the consequences of their actions.

  3. ddacosta says:

    Republicans need to face the fact that their nothing more than obstructionists. Go along or get out of the way. Bush had his chance, now its Obama’s turn. Democrats were patient for a long time so now the Republicans can just get out of the way.

    • jaketleech says:

      That’s not how the democratic process is supposed to work, though. There’s supposed to be debate, not one party submitting to the will of the other. Sure, the rate at which the filibuster is used now is ridiculous, but don’t forget that Democrats frequently filibustered Bush’s picks too. My point is that Republicans just “getting out of the way” as you put it is not democracy. There has to be some give and take on both sides. Keeping the Republicans silent is, frankly, nothing more than tyranny, and that’s not what the Founders envisioned.

  4. Pingback: The Senate Would Be More Efficient Without The Filibuster, And That’s The Problem | the Net economy

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