Las Vegas Sun

April 17, 2014

Currently: 73° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

Sun Editorial:

Filibuster abuse

Senate rules should be changed to end the all-too-common gridlock

Another view?

View more of the Las Vegas Sun's opinion section:

Editorials - the Sun's viewpoint.

Columnists - local and syndicated writers.

Letters to the editor - readers' views.

Have your own opinion? Write a letter to the editor.

In the classic movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a young, idealistic senator stages a filibuster in his fight against corruption, speaking for more than 23 hours before he faints on the floor.

That scene is a dramatized version of the filibuster, the best known of the Senate’s arcane rules. As portrayed in the movie, a senator would take the floor and remain speaking to stop the Senate from doing any other business.

The filibuster is part of the great tradition of the Senate and its rules, which allow individual senators and the minority great say in the debate. Unlike the House of Representatives, where the majority strictly rules, the Senate’s majority party can’t easily steamroll the minority.

That’s why there has been such a fight in the Senate over proposals to change rules regarding the filibuster, which has recently been used to hold the chamber in gridlock. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has proposed overhauling the rules to limit the filibuster, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has voiced support for change. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has decried any change.

Historically, the filibuster was seen as a procedure to be used in extraordinary issues. Rarely was it invoked. In recent years, use of the filibuster has gotten out of control, and it has strayed from its original intent. It certainly doesn’t look anything like what Jimmy Stewart went through in “Mr. Smith.”

Senators typically filibuster through procedural maneuvers, so the long floor speech is a rarity. And rules changes over the years now mean that other work on the floor doesn’t stop, so there’s little pressure to deal with — or end — the filibuster. Because of the ease of the filibuster and the need for 60 votes to break one, which is very difficult in today’s political climate, the filibuster is an extreme and powerful weapon that has been used and complained about by both parties.

In 2005, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., complained about Democratic tactics and considered using the so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules and curb filibusters, particularly on judicial nominees. During the 110th Congress, which ended in 2006, there were 68 motions to invoke cloture, the procedure to end a filibuster, filed in the Senate.

After Frist retired in 2006, his party went on to use the filibuster in record numbers. The Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007 and were soon overwhelmed as Republican filibusters flooded the chamber. There were 139 cloture motions in 2007 and 2008 — a record high. The following two years, the first of President Barack Obama’s administration, saw 137 cloture motions. The current Congress has seen 111 cloture motions.

No wonder there’s such gridlock in Washington.

As if it couldn’t get any more ridiculous, just last week, McConnell threatened to filibuster his own bill after Reid agreed to vote on it. (Yes, that’s really what happened.)

The Senate’s job is to get things done for the American people, not jam the wheels of government. It’s good that the rules protect the minority party, but we can’t support what we’ve seen in recent years.

There needs to be a change, but whenever there are such plans, the minority party complains about fairness and Senate tradition.

Fine. Let’s go back to the way the filibuster had been carried out traditionally, as in the “Mr. Smith” days. If a senator thinks a bill or a nomination is so offensive that it has to be stopped, let him go to the floor and make his case, and let all other work cease until the filibuster is resolved. Then the senators can decide whether it’s really worth it.

That should curb the frivolous use of the filibuster, reserve it for what it was intended and get the Senate back working.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 25 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. Amendments to a bill are fine, as long as they actually apply to the bill in question. Too often amendments are irrelevant to the bill, and only add "pork" to the final product.

  2. I'd love to see McConnell filibuster on the floor, and collapse in a heap. That alone would be worth changing the rules back to what they used to be.

  3. If we want to make changes, let's start with the Senate, period. The US Senate is a dinosaur. It is based on the House of Lords in England, the wealthy, which has since been made merely symbolic with no legislative authority. The US should take the lead of England and do likewise with the Senate. It's a millionaires' club of 100. Those who aren't before getting elected to the Senate are when they leave, if they do. Scrub it. Keep the Peoples' House of Representatives of 435.

    CarmineD

  4. The pending rule change is the main reason why obstructionist Jim DeMint is quitting the Senate.

    Jim DeMint and others obstructionist in the Senate and the House are making money being obstructionist. Special interest pay people like Jim DeMint to gum-up the works. Their mission is not progress. Their mission is to stop anything that does not benefit the people paying Jim DeMint.

    The Senate is no long a money maker for Jim DeMint or his special interest once the current Filibuster is changed next year. Jim DeMint is actually going to works directly with the special interest that supports his obstructionist ways...The Heritage Foundation.

  5. Although sympathetic to Carmine's point about the Senate, it should and does act as a temper on the more volatile House. I don't think that the Senate or the House are in particular need of change other than election of more seasoned folk. Too much money, too little experience and too much selfish special interest are evident in the Presidency, both Houses and the Court.

  6. When the rules make the House or Senate dysfunctional they need to be changed.

    Perhaps we need an independent non-partisan committee to establish rules and monitor them to make sure the Congress functions appropriately.

  7. "Although sympathetic to Carmine's point about the Senate, it should and does act as a temper on the more volatile House." @ Pat Hayes

    If you believe this, and frankly I don't anymore, then you can't defend the Senate actions to break the very rules that are in place to do this? Doesn't make sense to me. Break the rules to change the rules. It's nonsense. It's a power grab by the party in power to diminish the influence of the minority party. When you do that, you do so at the expense of the core value of the Republic: Minority protection.

    CarmineD

  8. I concur with Jeff's post at 8:21AM today. Simply returning to the rule that said all other business must stop until the filibuster is resolved would go a long way towards reducing its use, or forcing a compromise.

    Something else that would help would be for Congress in general to adopt a rule that would limit subject matter of amendments on bills to have some connection to the primary bill. Too often we see them put together monster bills with all kinds of attachments that have nothing to do with each other.

  9. Remember the definition of filibuster. Here it is for refreshing memories:

    "A filibuster is a type of parliamentary procedure where an individual extends debate, allowing a lone member to delay or entirely prevent a vote on a given proposal."

    It's [filibuster] objective is to stop parliamentary business as usual. As a defense to slow and temper the passage of a hastily passed bill ramrodded through by the party in power. Against the wishes of the minority party. If you change the filibuster rule, then you are breaking the very rule instituted for the purpose that it was designed to perform. In other words, breaking the rules to change the rules. It's nonsense. It's a power grap by the majority power. The reason for the filibuster rule in the first place.

    CarmineD

  10. "Sadly you perpetually cover for Republican snake oil salesman." @ Jeff

    I advocate the dissolving of the Senate in total. That affects both parties equally.

    CarmineD

  11. "according to unofficial tallies from the Associated Press." @ Jeffery

    Now that's a credible source. Try again when you are serious.

    "For a radically conservative with a background in economics it is sadly necessary to keep a close eye on people like yourself that seek to overturn the will of the majority, because it is "good for them". @ Jeffery

    I'm an independent politically and left of center. With a triple major: Econ, Accounting, and Business. My concern, like that of the Founders and Framers, is the protection of the minority rights not the majority. The latter don't need it the former do.

    CarmineD

  12. Truth be told, I've been advocating for dissolving the Senate for longer than you have been on this earth. It serves no useful function except as an elite club for millionaires.

    CarmineD

  13. Here's your proof Jeffery:

    "Jun 30, 2011 ... 1 percent of Americans are millionaires, 66 percent of senators are millionaires, ... who, any way you cut it, are in the elite of the financial elite," Levinthal said."

    CarmineD

  14. "The house members are fat cats too. Don't think your "cure" has been very well thought out." @ Jeffery

    Very well thought out in fact. House members are elected every 2 years and are elected at the local level; Senate every 6 and represent the wealthy elite which they are themselves. It's easier to get rid of a House member after 2 years than a Senator after 6. Even Presidents only serve 4 years and as incumbents are at least based on recent events guaranteed a second term even if their first was dismal.

    CarmineD

  15. Not to mention, although I will, that Presidents are limited to 8 years but the Senate can be forever, if you can get it. And apparently alot of persons like Biden have.

    CarmineD

  16. "If you can provide a link that shows updated totals on the house as a country I will be happy to retract my statement that the democrats received more votes nationally. " @Jeffery

    It's Bloomberg's, not yours. I subscribe to the magazine and read the same article you quoted and posted.

    CarmineD

  17. No, it's one source's [AP] best guess with no other corroborated reference/source to verify/confirm. That makes it useless except to the article's author as part of a whole series of OBSERVATIONS AND OPINIONS by ONE AUTHOR about the election results.

    Deal with facts not one person's opinions based on speculation and best guesses.

    CarmineD

  18. Jeffery:

    You are scrubbed here alot and for good reason. At least to the Moderator and to me.

    Now, you are groping to make an argument here that is irrelevant to the subject matter at hand. Good luck with that.

    You quote sources not your own to do so. These are opinions that others have made to make their points, in your quoted case, about election results. Such opinions are diverse and all over the map depending on the author's perspective. No one, not AP by guessing, not Bloomberg by printing, not you and not me by posting, can speak with authority on the voting motives of 309 MILLION people, in factual terms. We can as you and those you quote make opinions about it.

    CarmineD

  19. When the senate and congress get nothing done the "American people" get to keep their freedoms a little bit longer

    No USSA

  20. In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on Dec 13, 2012 by John Borrasso, a Republican Senator from Wyoming, he wrote in conclusion to an article on this subject: "Harry Reid's Filibuster Coup Attempt" and I quote:

    "Since its inception, the American political system has functioned on the majority rule but with strong minority rights. Democracy isn't winner-take-all. If Senator Reid breaks the rules to change the rules, political minorities-and all Americans-will lose."

    CarmineD

  21. There are 3 ways that the minority party in the Senate can affect bills/laws. One: In Committee, Two: On the Senate Floor, and Three: Filibuster.

    Sadly dirty harry since his stewardship of the Senate in 2007 has used two devious techniques to neutralize one and two above. Dirty harry uses Senate Rule 14 to write bills behind closed doors preempting any and all GOP input. He's done it 70 times. Dirty harry uses a procedure called "Filling the Tree" by using up all available slots for amendments on proposed bills on the Senate Floor so the GOP could not offer any. Dirty harry's done it 69 times.

    Now, dirty harry wants to change the cloture rule so it takes 51 votes rather than 60 to end a filibuster and vote on a motion.

    This is a power grab by dirty harry. He effectively putsg all the control of legilation in the democrats' hands and locks out the GOP. This violates all the protections of the parliamentary procedures in the Senate to guarantee a voice and vote to the minority.

    And the Sun supports this and dirty harry? Really?

    CarmineD

  22. PS: If dirty harry is successful, you may just as well dissolve the Senate as I and others here suggest. Why? Simple. Because we will have a one party rule in the millionaires' club, the majority.

    CarmineD

  23. While I can understand some of the logic in Carmine's posts this morning (although as a late riser I confess to not reading all of them), there are several reasons for maintaining the Senate regardless of the issues relating to the filibuster rule. First, Senators have 6 year terms. The drafters of the Constitution were concerned that the "people's house" would be too volatile and overly responsive to short term political waves and wanted the Senate to be a body less influenced by such short term impacts. They accomplished this by the longer term of office in the upper house.

    The byproduct of the longer term is the phenomenon we see regularly, i.e. split government. With the longer terms and slower turnover in the Senate, even where, as in 2010, there is a political tsunami, only one house is impacted immediately, leaving the government with some inertia against short term political tides. If you believe in minority rights, this is a good thing.

    Additionally, the drafters wanted to grant the smaller states added weight befitting their sovereignty in a chamber where population size would not permit the few larger states from having undue influence. By having the same number of Senators from each state, this was accomplished. Doing away with the Senate would shift the balance of power from its current diffused spread and concentrate it in the "urban" states like California, New York, New Jersey, etc. Eight of the top 9 states in population constitute a majority of the country's population and are "blue", as are 14 of the top 17. Are you sure you want the resulting situation. I will point out that, despite GOP control since 2010, it has controlled the house for only 18 out of the last 80 years.

    Lastly, and not necessarily a product of the drafters' discussions, the Senate is free from Gerrymandering.

    As a parting thought, the issue over the filibuster is not only the possibility of eliminating it by requiring only 51 votes for cloture, but merely requiring the actual filibuster, i.e. if you want to force a vote on cloture, you have to stand up and argue and allow the Nation to see you on CSPAN. Some political minds think this would make it what it was intended to be, i.e. a tactic of last resort, not an every day occurrence. Okay, I'm exaggerating--since Obama took office it has only been used 250 times, or roughly every other day that the Congress has been in session, or more than 4 times the rate used by the Dems against Bush in the 110th Congress.

    And finally (if your still reading) my view is embodied in the last paragraph. I'd leave cloture at 60 votes but require an actual filibuster to diminish the desirability of its use and thus move away from the automatic 60 vote super majority requirement on essentially every contested piece of legislation.

  24. Hank Stone:

    I recall when Dr. Frist was elected Senator from Tennessee, he said he would only serve one term of 6 years. He believed that's all a Senator should serve, and then go back to his/her chosen profession, rather than become a career politician. I thought, as others in Washington, that here is a man with a fresh view of the Senate. And one I can agree with and support. Then what did Senator Frist do? Run again and serve a longer term than 6 years.

    There are 2 basic rules of politics. One: Win election and then win reelection. Two: Don't forget rule One.

    If the Founders were that concerned about the volatility of the Peoples' House, as you claim is the reason for the Senate, they would have made the House term 4 years rather than 2. Your logic for keeping the Senate fails the test. Most especially if you support the 51 vote rule over the 60.

    CarmineD

  25. "First, Senators have 6 year terms." @ Hank tone

    "However, when the states ratified the Constitution (1787--88), several leading statesmen regarded the lack of mandatory limits to tenure as a dangerous defect, especially, they thought, as regards the Presidency and the Senate. Richard Henry Lee viewed the absence of legal limits to tenure, together with certain other features of the Constitution, as "most highly and dangerously oligarchic." Both Jefferson and George Mason advised limits on reelection to the Senate and to the Presidency, because said Mason, "nothing is so essential to the preservation of a Republican government as a periodic rotation." The historian Mercy Otis Warren, warned that "there is no provision for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life; which by a little well timed bribery, will probably be done...."

    CarmineD