On Aug. 28, 1957, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina delayed passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 by speaking on the Senate floor for more than 24 hours. He was using the filibuster, a Senate tactic whose use was dramatically portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Simply put, the filibuster is an action used by a minority party member in the Senate to delay a vote or block debate. Until recently, this tactic was used sparingly and not regularly, as it is now, and hence it was possible to conduct Senate business in an orderly manner.
In the last two decades, the frequency with which the filibuster has been used has increased dramatically. For instance, during President George W. Bush’s second term, Senate Republicans were incensed with intransigent Senate Democrats and their repeated use of the filibuster to block the president’s judicial nominees. In response, Republicans threatened to use the "nuclear option," a procedural trick by which the Senate, which normally alters its rules with a two-thirds majority, would rewrite a rule-to end the filibuster-with a simple majority vote. Fortunately, as a result of the agreement brokered by the so-called "Gang of 14," cooler heads prevailed in 2005 and the nuclear option was not used.
The shoe is now on the other foot. The Democrats are the majority party in the Senate, and Republicans in this chamber have used committee rules, anonymous holds and, of course, the filibuster to preclude consideration of legislation, nominations and pretty much anything else that President Barack Obama and the Democrats have proposed. Faced with 386 Republican filibusters in his six years as majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid is now proposing to change the way the filibuster is used by members of the minority party.
At a time when amity among senators is largely absent and many members of the Republican Party value ideological purity over good governance, it is time to take Reid’s two-pronged proposal seriously. It appears that he is considering asking senators to set new rules at the beginning of the upcoming session, thereby putting an end to the secretive and unaccountable abuses of the filibuster on motions to proceed with Senate business. This will permit the Senate to take up legislation or nominations. Reid also is supposedly considering a stipulation that senators must appear on the floor of the Senate and argue their positions-like Strom Thurmond and Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Despite Republican protestations to the contrary, it is important to comprehend that Reid is not proposing to do away with the filibuster. Instead, he wants to amend how it is used, to preclude the worst abuses. Even with his proposed changes, senators would still be free to go to the floor to continue debates about major legislation and nominations. Moreover, they also could initiate filibusters to prevent the end of debate on a matter of consequence. Finally, they could use filibusters to block a conclusive vote on a piece of legislation.
Clearly, it is generally not a good idea to bring about long-term institutional change for short-term strategic advantage. This notwithstanding, the filibuster has been much abused and is certainly in need of reform. If such reform, preferably with bipartisan agreement, is not forthcoming, then it may well be time to exercise the nuclear option.
Amitrajeet A. Batabyal is the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics at Rochester Institute of Technology; these views are his own.
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