Dunsmore: Filibuster Reform

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(HOST) When the new Congress convenes its first session on January 5th, a vote to change certain Senate rules could significantly improve the functioning of the U.S. Government. This morning, commentator and veteran ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore explains.

(DUNSMORE) For the past century most Americans have been only vaguely aware of the filibuster. For some of us geezers, filibustering is what Southern senators used to do for hours and days when opposing new civil rights legislation.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made a passionate eight hour Senate speech against extending the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich. But while the speech pleased progressives and media reports called it a filibuster, technically it was not. Sanders stopped speaking of his own volition – not because 60 senators voted to silence him. And there was never any question that Sanders would be able to block the tax bill compromise which would have required the support of 40 other senators.

Senate rules for filibusters are quite specific. They are not a product of the Constitution but were created by the Senate itself – and they can be changed. In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes needed to break a filibuster from 67 to 60. Until recently 60 seemed a workable number because there were relatively few filibuster threats. However, in the last two years Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues have mounted more filibusters than occurred in the 1950s and ’60s combined.

As each filibuster vote can take a week of Senate floor time to resolve, that has accounted for months and months of procedural delays. But of more importance, it has meant that a minority of 41 Republicans has been able to consistently block the wishes of the 59 members of the majority. That is demonstrably un-democratic – and it accounts for the belief by most Americans that their government is dysfunctional.

Yet help may be on the way. Last week a little noted letter was signed by every returning Senate Democrat and sent to Majority Leader Harry Reid calling for filibuster reform. According to senate rules, that would require sixty-seven votes – except on the first day of a new session which will be Wednesday January 5th. On that day revisions can be made by a simple majority. And even having lost five seats in the last election, the Democrats are still the Senate’s majority party.

It’s unlikely filibusters will be done away with – or will the 60 votes now needed to end them be revised. But changes are being considered which will greatly streamline the entire process – such as preventing the use of a filibuster to block a motion from ever reaching the floor; for instance, greatly shortening the debate once a filibuster has been defeated; and – ending the practice whereby a single anonymous senator can place an indefinite hold on any piece of legislation or nomination. These changes alone would greatly alter the workings of the Senate – for the better.

The main point is that Senate rules are not sacrosanct. And when those rules are clearly no longer in the best interests of good governance – as evidenced in recent years – they absolutely can and should be changed.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Barrie Dunsmore at VPR-dot-net.

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