The “filibuster” is the least understood and most abused parliamentary maneuver in the United States Senate. It has a rich historical pedigree that dates back to ancient Rome where Cato the Younger, a Roman senator, was said to have used it to resist the emperor, Julius Caesar. Sen. John Calhoun D-SC first introduced it in the United States Senate in 1841. It is famously depicted in the Jimmy Stewart movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The filibuster was used notably by Democrats to resist abolition of slavery and thereafter to resist the Civil Rights Act.
In its simplest form a filibuster is a lengthy speech(es) on virtually anything for purposes of delaying or defeating consideration of legislation. So long as the filibuster lasts the subject legislation as well as all other business of the legislative body is stalled. Under Senate rules a filibuster can be ended by a “cloture” vote requiring a super-majority – under Senate rules that is a three-fifths vote. Absent a cloture vote the filibuster can continue until the proponents are exhausted – and once they are exhausted and cede the floor, the business of the Senate continues. The last time that a senator was actually required to “hold the floor” was when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) sought to derail funding of Obamacare. Because not a soul in the United States Senate likes Mr. Cruz there were always enough votes to evoke cloture and he was forced to hold the floor himself – no one even stepped forward to join him.
But that’s not good enough for the laziest institution on earth – the United States Senate. The idea of requiring a member to actually stand and speak is apparently to difficult for the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” It is simply unbecoming to ask these great orators to orate – God forbid that we may find them to be boring, ill-informed and unable to deviate from their cue cards and “talking points.” So the rules have been changed. Now any member of the Senate can claim the right to filibuster and the burden shifts to the rest of the body to demonstrate that it has sixty votes for cloture. That change has caused the Senate to morf from “the greatest deliberative body” to “the place where ideas (good or bad) go to die.” It is all due to fundamental laziness.
Be assured I still believe in the filibuster. If you believe in a principle you should be able to stand and debate that principle. If you are any good at your job, you should be able to persuade others to join you. But if you are simply a primadonna grown indolent on privilege and perks, a “prince” of the realm drawing support for your title rather than your abilities, or a miserable S.O.B. still angry that your plans for being President have been quashed numerous times, the current rules allow you to hide your short-comings.
Let’s take the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court – a nomination which Republicans will come to rue when key issues like Roe v. Wade (abortion) and Friedrichs v. CTA (mandatory contributions to public employee unions) come before the court. The Democrats have vowed to filibuster his approval – not for any good reason other than politics. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) should refuse to hold a cloture vote and instead require the Democrats to hold the floor until exhaustion and thereafter approve the nomination with a simple majority. That’s right, the actual approval of legislation or nominations is still done by a majority vote. Yes, the Democrats may delay consideration but it will require them to do two things. First, give up the three day workweek and two hour workday, to remain in session continuously until exhaustion. And second, to explain to the American people why they are acting like petulant children instead of approving an obviously qualified nomination.
Forcing members of the Senate to actually hold the floor rather than threaten to filibuster will, for other matters, dampen the enthusiasm of either side to play politics with the people’s business. Instead, it will promote the likelihood of compromise which is exactly what the founders intended.
But nothing is going to change. The Senate is run for the comfort of the Senators, not for the business of the people.