Guest columnists Todd Campbell and Alan Durning argue that it's time for the U.S. Senate to end the filibuster. Senate rules that cede too much authority to the minority party have thwarted too much progress.
PUBLIC trust in government is at a record low. Climate change, jobs, the budget deficit, immigration and a host of other fundamental priorities go unaddressed. Education, scientific research, our transportation and information systems — the essential infrastructure of our shared prosperity — are all chronically neglected.
The distressing truth is that the federal government appears to be incapable of tackling the big issues that will determine the nation’s future health and vitality. Is it because we’re too polarized by divisions of ideology, race or class? Is it a lack of will or resources? Or the pernicious influence of corruption and malfeasance?
The answer? None of the above.
The real source of federal-level dysfunction is the United States Senate.
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The fact is that a two-chamber legislative branch was not the preferred model for many of our Founding Fathers. Thomas Paine argued for a single chamber. Benjamin Franklin thought having both a House and a Senate was like “putting one horse before a cart and the other behind it, and whipping them both.”
But even Franklin would never have imagined just how incapable of action the Senate would become. That’s because when he was around, the filibuster — which requires 60 votes to end debate and begin voting on pending legislation — hadn’t been invented. It didn’t become part of Senate rules until 1806. Even then, it was purely an accident — the unintentional consequence of a housekeeping measure to simplify the Senate rule book.
Used sparingly until recently, the filibuster has become a favorite tool of Senate intransigence.
It has prevented passage of legislation favored by large majorities of Americans that would have, for example, ended lynching, sped desegregation and addressed climate change.
Now it’s wielded by whichever party is in the minority simply to prevent the majority party from doing anything at all.
As Republican gains during the November election proved, this is an extremely effective political strategy. But clearly, it’s no way to run a vibrant, successful nation.
Fortunately, getting rid of the filibuster is a relatively straightforward matter. A report written by the Congressional Research Service in 2005 at the request of a Republican-led Senate looking for ways to stop Democrats from filibustering President George W. Bush’s judicial nominations explains how it can be done.
By tradition, the Senate has considered itself a “continuing body” in which procedures carry over from one session to the next. But this is a custom, not a requirement. To get rid of the filibuster, the vice president, who is the Senate’s presiding officer, could declare that the Senate is not a continuing body at the start of the next session. This would allow the Senate to adopt new rules by a simple majority.
The next opportunity to do this is upon us. Wednesday, Vice President Joseph Biden called a new session of the Senate to order. Senate Democrats are considering a number of proposals to change the filibuster process, such as reducing the number of votes needed to end a filibuster or requiring senators to be continuously present while they are filibustering legislation.
While any change that makes filibustering more difficult would be a step in the right direction, the only way to truly end the cycle of political dysfunction and intransigence that emanates from the Senate is to eliminate the filibuster altogether.
There’s no doubt that this would be controversial. But the biggest threat to American democracy today isn’t the prospect of overturning Senate tradition, it’s the overwhelming sense of futility that comes from persistent gridlock in government — gridlock that originates first and foremost in the U.S. Senate.
Eliminating the filibuster would at least make it more difficult for the minority party — Republican or Democrat — to bring discredit on the majority by preventing government from functioning at all.
Todd Campbell, left, is a Seattle-based speech writer and community volunteer. Alan Durning directs Sightline Institute, a policy-research center in Seattle.