Filibuster reform would come back to haunt Democrats

All glory is fleeting.

Ancient Romans understood this. That’s why a slave was required to stand next to a conquering general as he was paraded through the streets of Rome, whispering this wisdom constantly in his ear.

You would think members of the U.S. Senate would understand as much.

When it comes to efforts to reform filibuster rules, the majority should always try to imagine itself living under those reforms as the minority party. Few things are more certain than that political fortunes will change in Washington. It may not happen in two years or even in 10, but it will happen.

Senate President Harry Reid has said he will put filibuster reform on the agenda when the new Senate convenes in January. There is no denying that filibusters have been invoked more in recent years than ever before — a symptom of the ideological divisions in the country.

Note that Reid wants to reform this tactic, not eliminate it. The reforms include possibly requiring senators to actually talk their way through a filibuster, the way they once did.

If you have to stay up all night reading from the phone book in front of C-SPAN cameras, it might weaken the resolve of a minority trying to stop an appointment or some lesser piece of legislation.

Another reform would eliminate the filibuster on the motion to proceed. This means a bill could be opened to debate before a filibuster could happen, but Republicans say they do this because Reid has refused to let them propose amendments to bills.

I find this all very interesting. Not too long ago, in 2005, Republicans controlled the Senate and were annoyed at Democrats who constantly filibustered. They wanted to reform it so that judicial appointments could not be blocked. Cooler heads prevailed, and Republicans today are glad.

Let’s understand one thing: At its most basic level, democracy is about majority rule. But the United States has traditionally tempered this with strong protections for the minority against the tyranny of the majority. The American system is meant to be more inclusive than efficient.

In the Senate, this minority protection hasn’t always been used for noble aims. Democrats from the South used it to delay civil rights legislation for decades.

The Congress that takes control in January will have built-in safeguards against tyranny. The House and Senate will be controlled by different parties. But the Senate confirms appointments and ratifies treaties on its own. It is the most powerful of the two bodies.

At one point, the House had a filibuster rule, as well. That disappeared long ago. But clearly, it would not be unprecedented to monkey with the rule. In 1917, the Senate decided to require a two-thirds vote to end a filibuster. After the civil rights fiasco, the Senate lowered that threshold to three-fifths.

Reid and the Democrats can require actual spoken filibusters and enact other reforms if they wish. That may make them happy for awhile. But as any good Roman general knew, it would be unwise to set any trap they themselves would not enjoy falling into.

Categories: Washington

About the Author

Jay Evensen

Jay Evensen is the Senior Editorial Columnist for the Deseret News. He has 32 years of journalism experience covering politics and a variety of other assignments at news organizations ranging from United Press International in New York City to the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Deseret News, where he has worked since 1986. During that time, he has won numerous local, regional and national awards. Most recently, he was given the Cameron Duncan Media Award, given annually in Washington, D.C., by the advocacy group RESULTS, to the journalist judged to have done the most to further the cause of the world's poorest people.


  1. Darrel

    I believe something needs to be done with the Filibuster. The idea is great to protect the minority, and believe it should stay relatively intact and unchanged, but some mechanism should be presented to prevent its abuse.

    It has been suggested that someone be continually speaking. Another alternative can maybe that the Senate cannot consider further bills until a fillibuster is lifted. Maybe a rule that prevents a fillibuster on nominations and only allowed on legislation. Maybe require that 10 senators be needed to fillibuster an issue, and not only one. Or any one senator can only have one fillibuster open at any time.

    The idea of the fillibuster was to created endless debate, but it is no longer used for that. I think it should stay.

  2. Chares

    I’m not sure if it would even be possible, legally, to do what I propose here, but methinks the best way to assure that changes in rules such as filibuster are equitable and well conceived would be to have them not take effect until after the next election, or even two elections hence. If the majority party would bring in at least a proportionate number of minority party members to work out proposed new rules with both sides knowing that the rules would not take effect until after the next election, personal advantage might well be tempered by a longer view of how the rule would affect everyone in the future.

    The 27th amendment (one of the originally proposed 12 amendments from which the 10 in the bill of rights were ratified quickly) requires an intervening electing before congressional pay raises take effect. Congress determines its own pay, but must then stand before the voters before that can take effect. So everyone (in the House at least) voting on a pay raise knows he may be out of office before that raise takes effect.

    I do like the idea of requiring Senators to actually speak during a filibuster. I like the idea that while passing legislation is optional, the Senate has a constitutional mandate to vote (up or down) on nominees within some reasonable time and after some reasonable amount of questioning and debate so no filibuster on nominees. I also support the principle that the public’s business should be done in full public view. I also believe that every senator, every representative, should have equal voice in the chamber. So eliminating filibusters on nominations, eliminating secret “holds” on nominations or bills, changing the balance of power between “leadership” and individaul members, and any number of other changes to senate and House rules should all be considered.

    But I think the simple act of considering them in context of knowing the changes won’t take effect until the next election (and conventional wisdom is that the president’s party often loses seats in the midterm), would eliminate a lot of potential problems with a majority party trying to seize too much control OR a minority party acting too much the obstructionist to needed reforms.

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