Why Filibuster Reform Matters

Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin on the unprecedented use of filibusters under President Obama (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press) via The Atlantic
Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer, and Dick Durbin on the unprecedented use of filibusters under President Obama (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press) via The Atlantic

Imagine for a moment that the US Senate is like a train with 100 people on board. The majority party gets to appoint the conductor, but in extraordinary situations, any one of the passengers can pull the emergency brake and stop the train. As one would expect, use of the emergency brake would be reserved for emergencies. If the emergency brake gets pulled once every few years, it probably means that the passengers are not abusing their responsibilities and can be trusted with it. If they pull it on 70 percent of trips, then we have a problem and it should be obvious to everyone that these yankers are simply trying to prevent the train from getting to its destination. Last week, the Senate agreed to limit the use of this emergency brake.

Like most stories in the news cycle, the Senate’s recent filibuster reform was a big deal for a day or two, and was then promptly forgotten. It’s worth taking a moment to think about what it means for the future of American democracy.

So what is a filibuster? It’s a procedure by which one senator can stand and speak for as long as he/she wishes in order to postpone/prevent a vote on a piece of legislation or a confirmation (not unlike an emergency brake on a train). It effectively gives all 100 senators the power to veto anything. In order to override a filibuster, 60 senators must come together and invoke “cloture” which basically forces the rambling senator to shut up. The filibuster is featured prominently in the 1939 Hollywood film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (sound familiar?) in which a young senator uses the tactic to prevent the passage of an unjust law.

Is a filibuster good or bad? A filibuster is good because it’s a check on the power of the majority party; in extraordinary situations, the minority party can stand in the way of something they feel very passionately about. A filibuster is bad because it gives the minority party the ability to filibuster every little thing, even in non-extraordinary situations, effectively preventing the majority party from governing.

This bad scenario is exactly what’s been going on for the past five years. Both parties are guilty of abusing the filibuster, but the under the Obama presidency, this tool has been abused to an extent unprecedented in American history. Just about everything requires 60 votes to pass now.

This is not the way to run a government. It’s one thing to oppose a president. It’s reckless, however, to stand in the way of routine business and prevent the president and his party from governing. And that is why Harry Reid (Senate Majority Leader) went nuclear last week.

What’s the nuclear option? This refers to the recent vote in the Senate, which passed by 52-48, that eliminated the filibuster for all executive branch nominees and federal judicial nominations (other than the Supreme Court). On the surface, it doesn’t sound like much at all, let alone nuclear.

But why is this a big deal? The vote itself is not as remarkable as the fact that it became necessary. Let’s not pretend that government dysfunction is new. In some ways, bipartisanship is a myth that never existed. Conflict and hatred are old, but the current level of obstruction is new. The reason the recent “nuclear option” is such a big deal is that it’s an open admission that our polarized political climate is irreconcilable – one side will have to win.

In some ways, this is the end of congressional propriety, and it’s not because Washington is divided. It’s because the country is divided. It’s not as if filibustering Republican senators are scorned by their constituents for getting in Obama’s way. They’re treated like heroes. Every society must deal with the contradictory forces that pull it apart and keep it together. This contradiction is currently manifesting itself in ways not seen since the civil rights era. There is no consensus on how to govern. And this speaks to a larger problem. There is no consensus on what it means to be an American.

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