After years of complaining — and a failed attempt at reform from within — several Democratic lawmakers and others have taken decisive action against the Senate filibuster in the courts.
Reps. John Lewis ( D-Ga.), Michael Michaud (D-Maine), Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) joined a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Washington by Common Cause, a government watchdog organization. The suit charges that the rule is unconstitutional and was never contemplated by the nation’s founders.
The lawmakers on the suit say they all have introduced legislation in the House only to have it blocked in the Senate by use of the filibuster, which allows a minority to block further action on nearly any bill.
Once a rarely used procedural tactic, filibusters have become commonplace in recent years — requiring a supermajority of 60 senators to approve almost any legislation.
Since 2006, there have been more filibusters than the total between 1920 and 1980, filibuster critics note. As a result, in the last Congress the Senate was unable to pass a single appropriations or budget bill, left more than 400 bills sent over by the House unconsidered, and left key executive appointments and judicial nominations to languish.
Senate Republicans have routinely used the filibuster to torpedo much of President Obama’s legislative agenda, including most of his American Jobs Act, designed to bolster U.S. employment.
“Most Americans have lost confidence in Congress and its ability to act in the best interest of the American public,” says Bob Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause. “They have good reason. Congress is mired in gridlock as partisan factions put political advantage over the national interest. Requiring 60 votes to do anything in the Senate is a big part of the problem. It creates a disincentive to compromise, and allows powerful special interests to call the shots behind closed doors.”
The 52-page complaint argues that the filibuster allows senators representing as little as 11 percent of the population to prevent votes in the Senate; that violates the Constitution, which envisioned majority rule except where specifically stated otherwise, the plaintiffs charge. Once used to ensure open debate and deliberation, the filibuster rule is now used to actually stifle debate and make a mockery of the legislative process, they add.
The complaint notes that the filibuster has even kept the Senate from reforming its own rules, because any attempt at reform has itself been blocked by a filibuster.
“It’s clear the framers intended that a supermajority be required only in rare and special cases, like impeachment, ratifying a treaty, or overriding a presidential veto,” says Emmet Bondurant, Common Cause’s lead attorney on the lawsuit. “It was not meant to block debate.”
A revised rule that permits extended debate but guarantees a simple majority vote at the end of the day would solve the constitutional problem, Bondurant says.
Also listed as plaintfiffs are three young people whose future in the United States is in doubt because of the filibuster of the DREAM Act, legislation which would provide “conditional” green cards to as many as 2.1 million people who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents when they were under the age of 16. It would allow them to work, attend college and serve in the military. It also would put them on a path to citizenship.
Plaintiffs Erika Andiola, Ceasar Vargas and Celso Mireles were brought as children to the United States from Mexico by their parents, according to Common Cause. Each earned a college degree with honors and would be on track to become a U.S. citizen under the DREAM Act. Passed in the House of Representatives, and supported by a majority of senators, the DREAM Act was killed when just 41 senators refused to end the filibuster blocking it.