Saturday, December 29, 2012

Will the Senate Adopt New Filibuster Rules in 2013?


James Stewart made filibusters famous as Senator 
Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
According to Collins English Dictionary a filibuster is “the process or an instance of obstructing legislation by means of long speeches and other delaying tactics.” The use of filibusters dates back over 2,000 years. It is recorded that a Roman senator named Cato the Younger successfully frustrated Julius Caesar on at least two occasions by engaging in long oratories to delay action until certain deadlines were passed.

Cato had to personally stand before the Roman Senate for hours on end speaking extemporaneously to achieve his goals. Our modern United States Senate  has a long-standing rule that permits  a senator, or a series of senators, to speak for as long as they wish and on any topic they choose, unless "three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn".

What this means, in theory, is that 40 senators can obstruct legislation that has the support of the majority as long as at least one senator is willing to stand before the Senate and speak. Well, it used to mean that! The current practice is to engage in what is called a “silent filibuster” where a few senators merely announce their intention to speak endlessly and if the majority cannot muster the 60 votes needed to end discussion they simply move on to other business rather than insist upon hearing the objections of the minority.

The silent filibuster isn’t the only way to obstruct progress, there is something called an anonymous or secret hold in which a single, unknown senator is able to hold up a nomination or a bill for weeks or months or even longer.  Leaders from both parties have repeatedly pledged to end the practice of secret holds but have not kept their pledges. Secret holds should simply be abolished.

Some senators are calling for changes to these rules, changes that can only be made on the first day of a new session. An effort to “Reform the Filibuster” is being led by Senators Jeff Markey (D-OR) and Tom Udall (D-NM) and supported by others including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).


  • Those objecting to legislation should only have one opportunity to filibuster legislation. Specifically, the ability to bring up a bill for simple debate (the motion to proceed) should not be subjected to a filibuster.
  • Those wishing to filibuster legislation must actually hold the floor and be required to actually debate the legislation. It would end "silent" filibusters where one Senator quietly objects and is not required to take the Senate floor.
  • Instead of the burden required to break a filibuster being on the majority to deliver 60 votes, those objecting to the legislation and wishing to filibuster must produce 41 votes to sustain a filibuster.
  • The process for approving nominations should be streamlined, including shortening the amount of time required for debate once a nomination is brought to the Senate floor.

Unfortunately, most senators, both Democrat and Republican, are reluctant to put an end to silent filibusters and secret holds and it is unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will put any substantial rule changes before the body on the first day of the upcoming session.

Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI) have put forward a watered down “Bipartisan Proposal to Reform Senate Procedures”.  The real purpose of this proposal is to allow senators who do not wish to end the silent filibusters and/or secret holds to tell constituents that they voted for reform when they did not.

I would like to personally encourage my Michigan readers to contact Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) with the following message:

“We urgently need rule changes to end the silent filibuster and the secret holds. I am writing to encourage you to put the rule changes suggested by Senators Jeff Markey, Tom Udall and others before the United States Senate on the first day of business in 2013. Please do not compromise by putting forward the watered down, bi-partisan proposal being offered by Senators John McCain and Carl Levin.”

You may also wish to contact Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) with the following message:

“We urgently need rule changes to end the silent filibuster and the secret holds. I am writing to encourage you to support the rule changes suggested by Senators Jeff Markey, Tom Udall and others. Please do not compromise by supporting the watered down, bi-partisan proposal being offered by Senators John McCain and Carl Levin.”

Finally, if you feel so inclined, you may wish to contact Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) with the following message:

“We urgently need rule changes to end the silent filibuster and the secret holds. I am writing to express my disappointment with the watered down, bi-partisan proposal being offered by Senator John McCain and yourself. Please reconsider your position and support the rule changes suggested by Senators Jeff Markey, Tom Udall and others.”

Supporters of real reform to fix the senate may wish to like the Reform the Filibuster Facebook page or sign the related petition at ReformtheFilibuster.com. More information and another petition can be found at FixtheSenateNOW.org.