FILIBUSTER: AN INSTITUTION

Norman Ornstein believes actions by the Republican majority to get around the filibuster wuld result in enormous damage to the Senate.

While filibusters have long been a major weapon for senators and parties, their use has changed over the past 40 years. For most of its history, the filibuster resembled the one depicted in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”: one or more senators would take to the floor and debate around the clock to block action on something about which they felt deeply.

Of course, these filibusters were inconvenient to the Senate and interfered with the rest of the legislative calendar. So in 1961, Senate leaders adopted a two-track approach, allowing other business to go on while a filibuster took place, avoiding the cots-in-the-hall drama and pain of the old-fashioned filibuster. Instead, there would be periodic votes to see if the three-fifths quota could be reached.

This had the effect of making filibusters almost routine. Filibusters now happen all the time, but basically change nothing about Senate business — except to raise the bar for passage from 51 votes to 60. This is wrongheaded and unfortunate. For most issues, a sliding scale of cloture votes, to allow for extended debate but also force eventual votes, makes sense. (For significant and highly charged issues — including judicial nominations — the traditional 24-hour filibuster process still should apply.) Dr. Frist has proposed something similar for all presidential nominations. But reform should proceed in a straightforward fashion under existing rules.

Otherwise, Dr. Frist will be putting both the Senate and his own party at risk. The Senate is a unique and fragile legislative body. Its members have to get along for the simple reason that most basic Senate business — from scheduling action on a bill to calling a committee meeting — requires unanimous consent. Consensus and bipartisanship are absolutely necessary.

If Republicans unilaterally void a rule they themselves have employed in the past, they will break the back of comity in the Senate. Democrats could block Republican legislative efforts at every turn. For a short-term victory now, Republicans would reap the whirlwind.

Hmm. Of course, their is no comity in the Senate now. And Democrats are blocking Republican legislative efforts at every turn now.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.