Gazette opinion: Reform Senate rules: No more silent filibusters or secret holds

2013-01-03T00:00:00Z 2013-01-07T13:15:13Z Gazette opinion: Reform Senate rules: No more silent filibusters or secret holds The Billings Gazette
January 03, 2013 12:00 am

The U.S. Senate historically has been a great deliberative body. However, in recent years, it has increasingly become a great delaying body.

The way senators use the chamber’s arcane rules today more often than not slows the process of governing to a standstill. The rules are being used to require 60 votes to pass any substantial legislation, and the rules allow a single senator to hold up action on any bill or nomination.

The U.S. Constitution provides for majority rule, with few exceptions enumerated, such as sending a constitutional amendment to the states for possible ratification.

The filibuster, as used today, and the Senate hold take away majority rule and confer that power to a minority of senators, sometimes to a single senator.

Little wonder the Senate often can’t get anything done on pressing public issues.

The impetus to reform Senate rules, including the filibuster, is coming mainly from Democrats, who hold the Senate majority now. But change is necessary, not just for this Congress, but for the long term. In two or four years, the GOP could be the majority stymied by tyranny of a Democratic minority.

Minority views

In a recent guest opinion, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., argued against filibuster changes and complained of two ways he said Senate rules have been used against the minority party in the past couple of years. We disagree about keeping the filibuster as is, but Barrasso makes valid points about rules that allow the majority leader to circumvent Senate committees and prevent minority amendments on the floor. The Senate rules should guarantee that both parties have an opportunity to offer amendments on the floor and that committee processes will normally be used to vet legislation.

The filibuster shouldn’t be abolished. Rather, the rule should be changed so that a filibuster requires the senators who want to filibuster to actually filibuster. Historically, a senator had to stand on the Senate floor and speak to hold up legislation. As Jeffrey Renz, a Montana law school professor wrote in a recent guest opinion, two-thirds of senators present on the floor could vote to end debate. That rule helped hold both the filibustering senator and supporters accountable for delay. In 1972, the Senate changed its rule so 60 votes are required to end debate. If one senator invokes a filibuster now, the legislation is stopped – unless 60 senators vote to unstop it.

Wasting time

Before 1972, no two-year congressional session ever had more than seven filibusters. Between 2006 and 2012, the filibuster rule was invoked 385 times. The Senate has wasted nearly 1,000 hours annually in recent years by delaying debate.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., supported filibuster reform last session. He recently told The Gazette State Bureau that he is supporting a rule change to require filibustering senators to talk continuously on the floor of the Senate to block a bill and to force an actual vote rather than just invoking the 60-vote rule. Tester also wants to eliminate secret holds that can be placed on a bill or a nomination by a single senator. We agree with Tester on those two points, and would add reforms to the amendment and committee rules that generated Barrarsso’s complaints.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also should support these reforms.

As Tester said: “A filibuster is supposed to be part of our system of checks and balances, but it’s abused to the point where we can’t even debate the important issues that Montanans expect us to address.”

U.S. senators must reform the practices that are using tradition to obstruct the timely transaction of public business.

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