Here’s A Thought For Filibuster Reform: Make Them Actually Filibuster Something

Senate Republicans apparently plan to drop their objection and allow a vote on long-hoped-for financial reform legislation — but not before they blocked the bill for a third straight day.

This is not the first time the GOP’s pulled such a stunt. You might recall how its senators twice in recent months blocked the Senate from even voting on emergency extensions of unemployment and healthcare benefits for millions of out-of-work Americans.

Once a rarely used parliamentary maneuver, Republicans have elevated the filibuster to routine business in the modern Senate. Anything more than the most routine business requires 60 senators — not just a simply majority of 51 — to overcome a filibuster.

From 1971 through 1993, an average of just 19.1 motions to end filibusters were filed annually. That figure rose to 36 motions a year between 1993 and 2007, which doubled again just since 2007, to 68.7.

With nearly anything Senate Democrats have brought forward, Republicans have tried mightily to stand in the way. Democrats, in turn, are so frustrated that they have begun talking of implementing some form of “filibuster reform.”

You might think that all of this is of no more consequence than some petty political gamesmanship, but you’d be wrong.

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former congressional staffer with 31 years of service, found that the filibuster escalation is causing actual harm to the regular business Congress must complete.

Titled From Deliberation to Dysfunction, Lilly prepared an excellent study of the filibuster issue.

“Increasingly, the Senate has been forced to rely on legislative shortcuts that severely undermine the philosophy of full and careful consideration of all matters before the body…Even so, the chamber fails to complete much of the work for which it is responsible and falls so far behind schedule in completing the work it does do as to seriously undermine the capacity of the entire federal government to respond in an effective and efficient way to the problems facing our country.”

He also offered several recommendations to help get the legislative process back on track without sacrificing the prerogatives of the Senate.

Lilly is a seasoned and savvy legislative technician, and his proposed solutions were thoughtful and well-intentioned — but they ultimately miss the mark.

The word filibuster conjures images of plucky, defiant orators holding forth for a cause in which he or she believes, in a chamber rife with history.

Lilly notes that while most people think of the Jimmy Stewart classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the truth today is very different. It’s been decades since a senator actually went to the Senate floor to engage in the extended oration that most people associate with a filibuster.

Instead, as Lilly explains, a senator merely must give notice of an intention to filibuster, for that filibuster to take effect.

I think, though, we would begin to see far, far fewer filibusters if only the obstructing party had to actually filibuster something.

What I mean is: Make the Republicans sit there, on the Senate floor, hour after hour, in order for a filibuster to be sustained.

Yes, yes, I know, there would be much hand-wringing, and shaking of conservative fists at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for the injustice and indignity of it all. Republicans would follow gamely, even defiantly, with unending speechifying.

But it wouldn’t last. Have you seen a U.S. senator lately?

Even the ones who don’t appear to be in their early hundreds aren’t terribly tough and robust. They say politics is show business for ugly people, and that’s certainly true at least to extent that our current crop of politicians do appear to as pampered as most Hollywood celebs.

Let’s see just how grand the Grand Old Party remains after a series of all-nighters. Then keep the senators in town, and at work, over the weekend.

Worst of all: keep the Senate in session long enough to miss a few of their high-priced fundraisers in an election year. Now that might have the ability to concentrate their minds a wee bit.

Some might call my proposal overly aggressive, and say it threatens the comity of the Senate. Given that such comity is nearly nonexistent at the moment, I say, what do you have to lose, except maybe some sleep?

The publisher of On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered government and Washington for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. The article was first published on

Bookmark and Share

Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Here’s A Thought For Filibuster Reform: Make Them Actually Filibuster Something

  1. Dave Paulson says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more — make them actually freaking filibuster! The problem is that the Dems won’t want to be required to do so in the future when they are the minority party, so fat chance ever getting such a practical change.