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.