Senate filibuster policies freeze public's business
The U.S. Senate likes to think of itself as the world’s “greatest deliberative body.” Hobbled by holds, frustrated by filibusters and paralyzed by partisanship, it now moves so slowly that it better qualifies simply as the world’s “most deliberative body.”
Junior Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley teamed with two colleagues last year to champion reform. But thanks to the Senate’s entrenched old guard, it devolved into window dressing over the ensuing year.
It shows that even partisans can sometimes agree, at least when it comes to protecting the perks of power enjoyed by long-tenured members of the club. It’s hard to justify filibusters holding up business more than 100 times a session, routine judicial appointments taking more than 200 days to clear, and senators such as Oklahoma’s obstreperous Tom Coburn tossing holds about with reckless abandon.
Merkley’s main target was the filibuster. But in the words of Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein: “Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have come to a deal on filibuster reform. The deal is this: The filibuster will not be reformed.”
In the early days of our constitutional republic, there was no such thing as a single-member hold, let along a secret single-member hold. There was no such thing as a filibuster, let alone a silent or virtual filibuster. And while there certainly was plenty of partisanship, it was not allowed to thwart such routine business as confirmation of federal judges.
Both the House and Senate initially allowed members to cut off debate by simple majority, still the policy in the more plebian and democratic House.
The Senate created the potential for the filibuster in 1806, purely by procedural accident. The tactic was first employed 35 years later by Henry Clay.
In 1917, a dozen anti-war senators used the filibuster to prevent President Woodrow Wilson from retaliating against German U-boat attacks. In the 1930s, Huey Long recited Shakespeare sonnets and read pot-licker recipes to fend off all manner of legislation.
In 1957, Strom Thurmond used the filibuster in a failed attempt to fend off the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Southern Democrats tried again with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — legislation that had the unlikely effect of converting the South to the party of the Great Emancipator, Republican Abraham Lincoln.
Originally, there was no provision for killing a filibuster. Wilson convinced the Senate to create one in 1917, and it settled for a two-thirds vote. The threshold was reduced in 1975 to the still-formidable three-fifths or 60 percent, where it stands today.
That lower threshhold, however, is offset by a new, insidious policy. Practitioners like Clay, Long and Thurmond actually stood at the podium for 18, 20 or 24 hours straight. To paralyze the chamber today, a lone senator need only signal an intent.
Merkley spent an entire year on the cause and never even got a hearing, let alone floor action. It seems the world’s self-styled greatest deliberative body once again did all its deliberating behind the scenes, out of the public eye.
That’s a shame, as we’ve long subscribed to the view that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Maybe next time, senator.