In case you’ve lost track of the effort to change (I decline to use the word “reform”) the filibuster rule, a compromise deal will likely be announced soon, perhaps as soon as today.
The New York Times believes it knows most of the elements of the deal and the changes are very weak. The biggest changes apparently will be that the minority party will no longer be able to filibuster the procedural step known as the “motion to proceed,” which the Senate goes through before a bill can even come to the floor. In exchange for agreeing to that, Majority Leader Harry Reid has agreed to make it easier for Republicans to offer amendments. That would a good thing, in my view, if the amendments are serious and not just designed to kill time and if the amendments can be voted up or down within a reasonable time.
But the trouble is that there will still be no guarantee that any legislation will come to a final up or down vote in the Senate as long as 41 senators are willing to support a filibuster.
Actually, even the strong version of the rule change that was supported by most Democratic senators would have enabled 41 opponents to prevent final action on a bill that had majority support. The strong package would have required that the filibusterers actually hold the floor and keep talking. That apparently won’t happen. And the strong version would have changed the rule so that, instead of requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster, it would have required 41 votes to keep one going. That would shift the burden to the filibusterers to drop everything else they were doing and stay on the Senate floor.
I’ve studied the history of the filibuster and written about it several times and, for me, even the strong version of the rule change doesn’t go far enough. There should be no filibusters. When a bill has majority support, it should come to a vote within a reasonable period of time. The opponents should have a reasonable and adequate opportunity to express their arguments against the bill and offer amendments, but they and the supporters of the bill should be have certainty that after such a debate, the bill will come to a final vote.
This is so basic but it is seldom discussed honestly.
Just to repeat a few things that don’t get said often enough. The filibuster is not in the Constitution. It has nothing to do with the Founding Fathers plan. They built plenty of checks and balances into the system to guard against sudden winds of public enthusiasm. Even now, if there was no filibuster, bills could not become law without bipartisan support because the Republicans control the House.
The filibuster also has nothing to do with ensuring what its apologists constantly refer to “full debate.” There is a difference between allowing debate and allowing the minority to permanently block the will of the majority.
If you would like to read a contrary view, here’s a robust defense of the value of the filibuster from today’s Philadelphia Inquirer.