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home : opinion : opinion March 26, 2015

7/29/2013 3:22:00 PM
Editorial Filibustering should require explanation

U.S. Senators from both parties periodically talk about the "nuclear option" and the dangers it poses of allowing a simple majority of senators to invoke "cloture" to end a filibuster, so I thought a little discussion about what they are talking about might be in order.

Filibuster is derived from a Dutch word meaning pirate. In the U.S. Senate, it was until 1976 a term meaning a senator could hold up Senate business by continuing to talk and refusing to yield the floor to prevent a vote on an issue before the Senate. In 1976, senators decided to remove the requirement that a senator continue to talk and changed the rules so all a senator must do is say they are filibustering, no talking required, to block a vote on an issue.

Senators would like to have us believe filibustering is a noble tradition that our fore- fathers put in Senate rules to ensure that minority views would always be allowed expression before important issues are decided, but, like so much in politics, that is bull manure.

Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and professor of political science at George Washington University, testified before the U.S. Senate on the history of the filibuster. According to Binder, researching the history of the Senate reveals that originally both the U.S. Senate and House had similar rules, including a "previous question" motion allowing a member to call (motion) for a vote on the question being debated and only a simple majority was required to support the motion to pass it. In 1806, in a mistake attributed to Vice President Aaron Burr, the Senate deleted the "previous question" rule from the senate rules. The result was there was no Senate rule allowing members to force an end to debate.

The first filibuster occurred in 1837. In 1841, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay proposed changing Senate rules to allow a majority to close debate or effect cloture. He was criticized by fellow senators for attempting to stifle debate.

Binder said that back then Senators expected matters to be brought to a vote, that the senate work load allowed senators time to wait out opposition and that voting coalitions were not as polarized as they would later become. She said Senate leaders made attempts to reinstate the "previous question" rule but were unsuccessful as opponents would kill the effort by filibustering.

World War I brought the first set of circumstances that allowed the Senate to adopt a rule to limit debate. President Woodrow Wilson proposed arming merchant ships, and Republican senators filibustered the proposal. Wilson branded them as "a little group of willful men," the public burned the senators in effigy and Democrats framed adopting a rule for cloture as a matter of national security. The Senate adopted Rule 22 allowing debate to be closed by a vote of two-thirds of senators voting. That rule remains to this day.

I was not aware of that history and thought it worth sharing.

As I said above, periodically senators talk about the "nuclear option" of changing Senate rules to allow a simple majority to invoke cloture. I'm not sure that would improve Senate operations; however, there is a change I believe would improve Senate operations: require any senator who wants to filibuster to remain at the podium and speak until ready to relinquish the floor and allow a vote, as was the rule for 170 years.

Until 1976, the Senate was a relatively effective legislative body. It has become increasingly dysfunctional since changing the rules to allow a senator to stop action on bills without explaining what is wrong with the bill and how to fix it. Making senators talk about their objections until they have had their say improves the chances for mutual understanding and cooperation. The present rule allowing senators to block action with no explanation in a silent filibuster is passive-aggressive nonsense and govern-mental illness.

Larry Dobson

Claremont Service

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