Debate Club

We Must Reach Bipartisan Agreement to Limit Filibuster Use

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We should reform the filibuster, but we should reform it modestly and with bipartisan agreement.

The filibuster is deeply rooted in the Senate's rules and traditions to provide for unlimited debate. Part of what makes the Senate the Senate is the fact that the majority cannot move to a vote without hearing from the minority, it must often take up amendments not chosen by the majority, and that the supermajority required to cut off debate encourages senators to seek the cooperation of senators from the other party. The Senate is not the House, where the majority controls the timing and contours of debate and votes.

The fact that it is hard to get legislation through the Senate is in many ways a good thing. Simple majorities for the moment don't rule. Time and input from all parts of the Senate often improve legislation.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

But critics of the filibuster have rightly pointed out that the filibusters and cloture votes have increased substantially in recent years. And while in the past, a filibuster was frequently exercised by an individual senator or small bloc of senators, today with our very polarized political parties, we often have a unified minority party willing to filibuster and unified majorities interested in cutting off debate.

The answer is not to abolish the filibuster in toto, but to reform it and to achieve bipartisan agreement to limit its use. On the reform front, eliminating the filibuster on the motion to proceed would still allow the minority party to filibuster the final vote on a bill, but no longer to filibuster to prevent debate on the measure from occurring. Also, filibusters to prevent the Senate from joining with the House in a conference committee to resolve House-Senate differences on legislation should be limited.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

Most important is some agreement between the parties to lessen the use of the filibuster, recognizing both that the minority should not always stall votes on issues, while the majority should not block the minority party's ability to introduce amendments (e.g., by filling the amendment tree) and that the majority should not regularly move quickly to invoke cloture and cutoff debate.

An agreement to limit the use of the filibuster and filling the amendment tree was reached at the start of the last Congress, but it did not work as well as it might have. This should not stop Senate leaders of both parties from trying again in the next Congress. Restraint on both the urge to filibuster and to call for cloture and limit amendments is needed to allow the Senate to function effectively.

About John C. Fortier Director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center

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Senate
Reid, Harry

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