Sircus: The frustrating filibuster

Hope Springs Eternal

Believe it or not, the U.S. Senate missed another huge opportunity recently. On Jan. 27, the body emphatically voted down Tom Harkin’s (D-Ind.) and Tom Udall’s (D-N.M.) separate proposals to gradually abolish the filibuster. With both parties so hesitant to abdicate any semblance of minority power (lest the tides turn and Democrats find themselves back in the minority), the 112th Senatorial session has cemented its place as another obstinate, unproductive and acrimonious chamber. By failing to utilize the “constitutional option” — in which the Senate rewrites its own rules to omit the filibuster — the senators have tacitly allowed the council to remain in a state of perpetual gridlock. Thanks to another failed attempt at systemic reform, it’s highly unlikely the 112th Congress will pass any significant legislation on the economy, environment or other important initiatives currently floating languorously around the Capitol.

The first filibuster (a term that comes from the Spanish word “filibustero,” meaning pirate or freebooter) in United States history began on March 5, 1841. At the time, the parliamentary tactic — which dates as far back as Roman times — was thought to protect the interests of minority parties, caucuses and factions from the stronger majority groups. Consequently, the filibuster was used sparingly, solely as a means of making an impassioned defense for an issue about which an individual senator felt particularly strongly. Now, however, the filibuster of yore — romanticized in Frank Capra’s 1939 classic “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” — has become a frustrating fixture of modern congressional parlance. The days of Senators Huey Long (D-La.) and Strom Thurmond (D-S.C.) talking for over 24 hours straight are long gone. Instead, today’s filibuster efforts are often quiet, lethargic and anonymous to the public. Stripped of their romanticism, filibusters are now often filed by irritants from cloakrooms.

Needing 60 votes to invoke cloture (the method by which a body can close debate and kill a filibuster), every bill now needs a strong basis of bipartisan support, and often that means cutting out what the American people want. The Democrats of the 110th congress filed a record 112 cloture votes to block Republican efforts at filibustering legislation. But the Democrats aren’t saints of legislative comity either — in the 106th congress (1999-’00), Senate Democrats filibustered 56 different bills.

Filibuster proponents advocate for the tactic on the grounds that the process protects the interests of minorities. Additionally, keeping the filibuster in place serves as a de facto fallback option. Should the party holding the majority role lose enough seats, the filibuster is in place to ostensibly guarantee that majoritarian rule doesn’t steamroll the prerogatives of minority groups. However, the Constitution — a document that nowhere mentions anything about a filibuster — provides measures to protect minority groups. If the American people find fault with the way in which our legislators are exercising their power, then they can simply vote them out in the next election.

Congressional job approval currently hovers at just above 25 percent. Much of this disdain for our representatives stems from the belief that Congress is unproductive, and constantly stuck at a legislative impasse. The way around that obstacle? Filibuster reform — it’s the only way to give the American people the laws for which they are clamoring.

An oft-neglected method of filibuster reform is the so-called “constitutional option.” Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution states that “each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” Though a two-thirds majority is currently required to rewrite or amend any of the Senate’s rules, the beginning of each Congress presents an opportunity for each House to rewrite its respective rulebooks from scratch. Therefore, if the Senate majority party proposes to amend the number of votes needed to approve a rule change from two-thirds to a simple majority, then the 112th Senate could successfully vote to abolish the filibuster. While the Senate rejected this proposition both at the beginning of this session and in 2005, when Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) proposed the idea, some Senators have fiercely advocated for the application of this parliamentary procedure. The use of the “constitutional option” is not without precedent. Throughout the Senate’s history, there have been three movements to rewrite the Senate’s rules, the most recent of which occurred in 1975. While the process is unorthodox, it maintains a greater fidelity to the original intent of the United States Senate — a body that should truly represent our democratic republic.

Though the opportunity was lost this time around, the start of each Congress presents our nation’s “upper house” with the opportunity to revisit its rulebook. Hopefully the Senate can learn the error of its ways and abolish the filibuster at the start of the 113th congressional session. Only then will the Senate overcome its legislative lethargy.

Joel Sircus is a freshman in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.


  • The Anti-Yale

    I’m with George Will on this one. The filibuster is designed to SLOW down the legislative process, EXACTLY what the founders envisioned, to thwart the hormonal legislation of the impetuous.

  • ignatz

    It reminds me of the old joke:
    Q. “When do Senate Democrats start having doubts about the filibuster?”
    A. “When they realize they’re going to lose control of the Senate in less than 2 years!”

  • Madas

    At least they have to be present for the damn filibuster. The Democrats in Wisconsin just invented absentee filibusters. WAit until that spreads around the country. You think things are bad now? Wait until both parties cite the precedent to run away from important votes. Throw in Obama’s newly created authority for the president to determine the constitutionality of laws he doesn’t like. Just imagine when a Republican gets that privelege. Roe vs. Wade? Uconstitutional by fiat. Social security? Unconstitutional. I mean, I wouldn’t personally be opposed to those decisions, but you have to go through the procedures set out for each branch of government or the entire representational system could break down. Yes, sir, we’re on an elevator ride to hell.

  • 11

    If a Republican president followed Obama’s precedent, all of those programs would remain the law and would continue to be enforced unless overturned by congress or the supreme court. Obama is within the rights of his office to not defend a law he thinks unconstitutional.

  • azzardo

    @Madas You’ve got it backwards. The U.S. Senate minority no longer has to “be present” to stall legislation via the filibuster. Due to some quirks in the rules, we now have “stealth” filibusters, rather than live ones. Check out the explanatory video here for some helpful background on the issue:

    By contrast, the Wisconsin situation is more like a like the live filibusters that used to occur in the Senate: the obstructionists are taking a physical action to stall the bill they oppose in the hopes that they can sway public opinion over the course of the standoff.

  • River Tam

    > Obama is within the rights of his office to not defend a law he thinks unconstitutional.

    You’ll be singing a different tune when Chris Christie refuses to enforce whatever laws he does not like.