Rules of enragement: The filibuster and Senate reform
What’s the biggest barrier to progress in American politics? Ask a dozen people at random and you’ll hear everything from “bad messaging” to “poor grassroots organization” to “corruption.” What you probably won’t hear much about is the procedural rules of the U.S. Senate. And yet it is Senate dysfunction, more than anything else, that has blocked or weakened the agenda Obama and the Democrats were elected to enact. The ignominious demise of the climate bill is just the latest example.
It’s time to start talking about Senate reform. The rules are being abused and American democracy is suffering.
I organized a panel on the subject at Netroots Nation this year (where talk of Senate reform was very much in the air). Afterwards, I asked each of the panelists to write a short essay summarizing their comments at the event. They are collected here:
- Mimi Marziani, constitutional scholar at the Brennan Center for Justice: “There is no constitutional right to filibuster“
- David Waldman, Congress watcher at Daily Kos: “The filibuster is what enables the ‘secret hold’ in the Senate“
- Matthew Yglesias, blogger for the Center for American Progress: “The filibuster undermines democratic accountability“
- Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.): “A plan to change the Senate’s rules and make the Senate work again“
Here’s a video of the panel, should you wish to watch the whole thing:
Some of my previous posts on the filibuster:
- Netroots Nation frustration and the impediments to progressive change
- The real reason the climate bill is going to suck
- How 7.4% of Americans can block humanity’s efforts to save itself
- One reason Congress might consider scrapping the filibuster
- Is Bill McKibben right to be angry with Obama?
- Time to bust the filibuster
- Why did the climate bill fail?
Here’s a couple from back in 2007, the last round of the climate fight:
- Sen. John Kerry defends Dem decision not to force a filibuster on the energy bill
- Dems can’t overcome filibuster threats to get decent legislation—so what should they do?
And finally, here’s a good recent one from Alan Durning: Winning on climate may require reforming the U.S. Senate
More to come.
– David Roberts
Stories in this series:
The dysfunctional state of the Senate has damaging consequences that extend into virtually every corner of American politics. There's just one in particular I want to focus on today, namely: it gives progressives a complex!
Debates about Senate procedural reform very often have constitutional undertones. Some claim that senators with strong, minority-held viewpoints have a constitutional right to prolong debate, even indefinitely. A related, more nuanced, argument begins by pointing out that our Founders envisioned the Senate as a careful, deliberative body that would check the rashness of the House of Representatives. Accordingly, some argue, the Framers intended that Senators be able to debate without limit. I am going to address and -- I hope -- refute each of these claims.
Besides blocking legislation that enjoys majority support from coming to a vote, the filibuster lies at the heart of a number of disruptive and anti-democratic practices in the Senate, including the so-called "secret hold." The secret hold helped delay Senate action for so long that time ran out for a climate bill.
The filibuster stands today as the single most important impediment to the significant reforms needed in America's climate/energy policies, its immigration policies, its labor law policies, and its need for a functioning judiciary. But beyond that, the filibuster has become a critical force undermining the workings of democratic accountability.
The Senate clearly isn't working, and the frustration is being felt outside and inside the body. I challenge my colleagues and all of you to support my Constitutional option for changing the rules and making the Senate function again.
The Senate's not working because it doesn't take any work to stop it from working -- and that's what the Republicans are interested in doing. Current rules make stopping the Senate from doing its work the easiest thing in the world to do. That's got to change.
Over the weekend, the PBS show Need to Know ran a fantastic piece on Senate dysfunction, focused in particular on filibuster abuse. It features Sen. Tom Udall, a big supporter of Senate rules reform, and George Packer, who wrote a stellar piece on Senate dysfunction for The New Yorker earlier this year. It's a lot of good info packed in 15 minutes.