Columns / Discourse / January 30, 2013

The filibuster power play

The filibuster is one of the most destructive political plays accessible to our nation’s senators. Unfortunately, with last week’s decision to maintain all current policies regarding the filibuster, it will be another two years before there is any hope of change.

There are obvious biases when debating this issue, seeing that currently the Democrats are in the majority of Senate (yet without the elusive supermajority of 60), but regardless of your political persuasion, there are plenty of reasons to eliminate this mistake.

I use the word mistake very deliberately when talking about the filibuster. Contrary to many popular opinions, the ability for a senator to filibuster came from an unintended consequence of simplifying Senate rules. A brief history lesson: in 1805, when Aaron Burr was vice president, and thus presided over the Senate, there was a movement (largely run by Burr himself) to simplify the Senate regulations. One of the most obvious redundancies, in Burr’s mind, was the motion to the previous question. For those not apt in parliamentary procedure, this can be thought of as a vote to go into voting. So when Senate reconvened in 1806, with the special regulations that allow rule changes to take place after every Senate election, they eliminated the apparent redundancy. However, without this provision, senators in theory could continue “debating” at  great length without having to worry about the bill coming to a vote. Thus the ability to filibuster was born, but not recognized.

Some claim that the filibuster was an integral part of the Senate since its birth, but the fact remains that the first real filibuster did not take place until 1837. For 31 years, no one took advantage of eliminating the motion of calling the previous question.

Today, however, there is a much different story. Anyone looking at the political system can see how problematic it is to have one half of the bicameral legislature essentially paralyzed. With that said, things have started to come back in the way of the original Senate bylaws. In 1917, under urging of President Wilson, Senate passed Rule 22 which allowed for cloture, or a procedure for ending debate, to take place if 2/3 (66) of the senators agreed. This number was later lowered to the 60 votes it takes in today’s Senate.

However, this “compromise” of the 60 person supermajority is by no means acceptable. Many contend that the rights of the minority will be squashed if the filibuster is not upheld. It seems that far too many people have forgotten that with the United States’ unique system of government, it takes more than a majority of voters in the Senate to force a bill to becoming a law.

In a world free of the filibuster it would still take 1) the majority of votes in the originating house, 2) the majority of votes to a similar (seeing as they almost always get amended) bill in the other house, 3) both houses agreeing on the exact same bill, down to the punctuation and 4) the signature of the president, which can only be avoided if there is 2/3 support in each house.

After all, the Supreme Court can still declare said law unconstitutional regardless of the majorities at play. In addition, my description leaves out the complex nature of getting a would-be bill through committee. Thus the rights of the minority are protected through the system even in absence of the filibuster.

All in all, destroying the filibuster has nothing to do with steaming legislation past a minority party. It is simply about getting any bit of legislation through Congress that will bring about something significant. As a final bit of trivia to all those who feel the filibuster is used only for blocking extremist, party line wishlists: the record for longest filibuster (24h 18m), is held by U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who used his time to attempt to block the passage of the Civil Rights act of 1957.

Payton Rose
Senior Payton Rose is a political science major with minors in creative writing and Spanish. This is his first year working for The Knox Student as discourse editor. He has written a political column for TKS for two years.

Tags:  filibuster senate supermajority Supreme Court U.S.

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