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November 29, 2012

Modest Yet Necessary First Steps to Reform the Senate

By Jeremy Miller

U.S. Senate logoAs the 112th Congress draws to a close, reforming the Senate is once again a high priority for many.  Two years ago CREW fiercely advocated for significant changes to restore and promote the ability of senators to introduce and debate legislation, and pass laws – the job they were elected to do. 

What started as a promising proposal to reduce wild abuse of the filibuster, however, ended with nothing more than a paltry gentleman’s handshake agreement that did little to heal the paralysis plaguing the chamber.

Abuse of the filibuster has continued, unabated.  In the current 112th Congressional session there have been 110 (and counting) cloture motions to stop filibusters.  In the 2009-2010 session there were 137 cloture motions, and 139 in the session before that.  Contrast Sen. Harry Reid’s six-year tenure as majority leader to that of Lyndon Johnson and the need for reform is even more glaring.  Johnson faced one filibuster, Reid has faced 386.  One other useful point of comparison: there were more filibusters between 2009 and 2010 than there were in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s combined.

Discussions at this juncture are fluid, but Majority Leader Reid has offered modest yet necessary reforms.  He has proposed making the motion to debate a bill or nomination (or motion to proceed) and motions to move a bill to conference with the House immune to filibusters; he wants to shorten the time it takes to break a filibuster; and he wants whoever is filibustering to actually hold the Senate floor and talk – just as Jimmy Stewart did in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Significantly, Sen. Reid has proposed these rule changes be implemented the first day of the new session in January with a simple majority vote, something he opposed two years ago.

Many, CREW included, don’t think these reforms go far enough.  There remain other methods for the minority party to bring the Senate chamber to a halt.  But given the charged partisan political environment, this may likely be the best Sen. Reid can do right now.  Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are furious about the prospect of even these modest changes. 

It is hard to understand Sen. McConnell’s ire. The proposed changes would merely end “quiet” filibusters, whereby a bill is killed by the mere threat of a 60-vote challenge even though there is no debate on the bill.  If these reforms are instituted, the minority would still be able to filibuster -- as long as senators are willing to hold the Senate floor and, well, debate. 

Filibuster reform is neither a partisan nor an ideological issue.  The question is not whether legislation or nominations blocked by filibusters are good or bad, but whether the American people will be better served by up or down votes that allow senators to be held accountable on Election Day.  Expect a spirited and passionate back and forth over the next month, and don’t be surprised if these reform proposals are either scaled back or broadened. 

As we did two years ago, CREW is working along with other groups advocating for meaningful reforms.  Stay tuned.

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