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Mondale on the filibuster: Mend it, don’t end it

The former vice president warns: “I don’t want to see a majority-rule Senate.”

Walter Mondale
REUTERS/Susan WalshWalter Mondale

Minnesota’s own Walter Mondale, the star of the last successful change in the Senate filibuster rule, spoke Tuesday at the U of M’s Humphrey School about the current effort to change it again.

The use of the filibuster to block or delay Senate votes has skyrocketed over recent years. A group of young reformers have proposed various changes to the filibuster rule. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has expressed sympathy for the idea. There’s a theory (or a strategy) that while it normally takes a two-thirds vote of the Senate to change a rule, it can be done by a simple majority on the first day of a new session. So, unless Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell can work out a deal to avert it, a showdown may occur when the new Senate convenes in January.

Mondale gave an overall downbeat assessment of the state of politics in Washington, of the role of the Senate and of the role of the filibuster, although he wouldn’t do away with filibusters entirely.

“We are in a deep crisis,” the former senator, vice president and Democratic presidential nominee said. Hyperpartisanship and the inability to compromise across party lines is “paralyzing our country… If you had a child that was acting that way, you’d be worried about him and you’d try to do something about it,” he said.

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The Senate has been left out of the current negotiations over taxes, spending and debt reduction, Mondale said. The negotiations are occurring behind closed doors between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner with no members of the Senate playing a serious role. It also bothers Mondale that a privately negotiated agreement, if one is worked out, will be presented to the Senate and to the nation on a take-it-or-go-over-the-cliff basis.

Mondale was in the Senate during the days of the civil rights debates, when southern senators used filibusters to block action. He led a group of insurgents — opposed by their own leadership — in forcing through a deal that decreased from 67 to 60 the number of votes necessary to cut off debate (called “cloture”) and force a vote.

But in his day, Mondale said, the Senate would endure about three to six filibusters a year. Now, 180 to 190 filibuster petitions are filed annually. Several changes in the filibuster rule have been mentioned including:

  • Reduce again the number of votes needed to cut off debate and force a vote. Mondale favors reducing it from 60 to 55, which happens to be the number of votes the Democrats will control in the next Senate. But, he noted, when he testified in Washington this year about filibuster reform, some of his old Senate friends said, “We gotta be careful. We could be in the minority one day and we’ll need these rules on our side.”
  • Require the filibusterers to keep talking. The old tradition required a senator or group of senators to hold the floor or a filibuster would end. Under the current rule, senators can simply announce their intent to filibuster and the Senate goes on to other business. The idea is that if the country saw the filibuster wasting time and preventing action, public pressure would build on them to allow a vote.
  • Instead of the current practice of requiring 60 votes to break a filibuster, require 41 votes to keep one going. That would at least inconvenience the filibusterers, who would have to stay in town and stay near the Senate floor to maintain a filibuster.
  • Ban filibusters on “motions to proceed.” Before the Senate can take up a bill for final debate, heading toward a vote, it must first adopt a “motion to proceed.” Now, the filibusterers can filibuster that motion, which prevents the Senate from even debating the bill.

Mondale firmly rejects the idea of getting rid of the filibuster entirely. “I don’t want to see a majority-rule Senate,” he said several times and so forcefully that he apparently believes the problem with that idea is obvious.

Personally, I favor doing away with the filibuster. Given all the other checks and balances built into the Constitution (the filibuster is not in the Constitution), I don’t see the problem with having each house of Congress run by majority rule. But Mondale said that without the filibuster, the Senate would “become a body for delivery rather than deliberation.”

To me, the filibuster has never been about allowing for full debate and has almost always been about the minority denying the opportunity for a vote on a bill that had majority support.

Talking to a few reporters after his panel, Mondale was asked about a proposal by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a long-time filibuster-reform advocate. Under Harkin’s plan, on the first cloture attempt, 60 votes would be required. But, over a period of days or even weeks, the number of votes required would fall in stages until a simple majority of 51 senators could force a vote. That would allow all the time necessary for full debate, but guarantee that eventually, a bill that had majority support, would come to an up-or-down vote.

Mondale doesn’t like the Harkin idea, he told the reporters after his talk. He worries that once the majority that supported the bill realized that it was going to come to a vote and had the votes to pass, they would stop listening to the debate and just wait it out.

I asked Mondale if he was aware of many instances, especially in the recent era of partisan unity, in which a senator from one party had changed his position on a bill because of an argument he heard on the floor from a senator of the party. He didn’t cite any examples but said it was important to keep alive the possibility of deliberative debate.