Editorial: U.S. Senate lacks responsibility to handle the powerful filibuster


Courtesy: Gage Skidmore/flickr

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during a congressional event. The Senate has been deemed as too irresponsible to handle a legislative tool as powerful as the filibuster.

Editorial Board

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Senate altered its operating rules by what has been called the “nuclear option.” For those unfamiliar with this nuke-like change, the Democratic majority in the Senate, led by Harry Reid, of Nevada, removed the ability of Senators to filibuster federal judicial nominations and appointments to executive offices.

In practice, this means that when a president nominates someone to fill an empty judicial office in a federal court or to fill a position in the executive branch that requires Senate approval, there only needs to be a simple majority vote.

Traditionally, senators could engage in a filibuster, which allowed a single lawmaker to keep prevoting debate open. In order to override a filibuster, 60 votes were required. Since the majority party commonly has between 50 and 60 seats in the Senate, removing the filibuster makes it much easier for a president whose party controls the Senate to get executive nominees approved.

The decision to invoke a rules-change such as this has been threatened many times from both parties. In fact, a showdown occurred over similar circumstances last January. In the end, a deal was brokered that moved forward several of Barack Obama’s appointments and kept the familiar rules in place.

While traditional, those rules we have become so accustomed to are not, in reality, constitutionally protected. The various forms of filibusters, ranging from active debate on the Senate floor to merely threatening a formal filibuster in writing, have been a staple of our Senate for many years, but like all rules, they can be changed.

The Republican Party is understandably upset that the Democratic majority would cross a line no previous Congress had crossed. With a swath of federal judges and other executive appointments now able to be approved along party lines, the Republican minority has lost considerable political power.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made it no secret that Republicans will be returning the favor if and when they regain majority in the Senate. McConnell recently said to the Senate Democrats: “You’ll regret this, and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”

Given the back-and-forth support and opposition to changing filibuster rules — based upon who is in the majority and who is in the minority — it can reasonably be expected that we would not have a return to the “normal” filibuster rules with a Republican Senate. McConnell’s remarks and the remarks of other senators make it nearly a sure bet that the “nuclear option” triggered by Reid and the Democrats will not be undone and might only be the tip of the iceberg.

As it currently sits, the Senate still has procedures that allow for unlimited debate on legislation, unless 60 members vote to proceed to end discussion. Some postulate that this will soon be merely a memory, as the recent rule changes have opened the floodgates to alterations to the Senate’s filibuster tradition.

This is seen by many, including McConnell, as a bad sign for American politics. What they fail to see, however, is that the removal of (a portion of) the filibuster is not a sign of things to come; it is a sign of what has already happened.

The filibuster rule in the Senate is, in theory, a good idea. With longer terms of office, fewer delegates, a static number of representatives per state and, originally, being elected by state legislatures, the Senate was unquestionably designed to be different from the other house of Congress.

The essential difference was the Senate was a place for wisdom, reason and respect among political opponents. Few onlookers today would classify any part of our government as such an institution.

For lack of a better metaphor, our congressmen and -women can be thought of as children. When they get along and do the things they are supposed to do, they can be trusted with extra responsibilities and more independence. When they misbehave, they need to have some of their more dangerous toys taken away.

The Senate, through unwarranted and excessive filibustering (on both sides of the aisle) has proven that it is not responsible enough (or perhaps we have not been electing those responsible enough) to have access to so powerful a tool.

The day might never come again when the members of the Senate act responsibly enough to warrant a second chance at the filibuster, but they certainly do not deserve so powerful a political device now.