Defending the Filibuster: It Helps Save Us From Bad Ideas

Major issues should be addressed with time and care.

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Lindsey Graham is a Republican from South Carolina and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

As a member of the House of Representatives who came into Congress with the Newt Gingrich-led Republican revolution of 1994, I chafed at how the filibuster could be used to slow our House-passed initiatives. Now, as a member of the Senate, I understand the true purpose and meaning of the filibuster. It is the tool that makes the minority voice in the Senate relevant. The filibuster slows down good and bad ideas. In a nation increasingly defined by "my way or the highway" politics, the filibuster requires legislators to build political bridges. It performs an important role by making competing forces—whether ideological, partisan, or regional—work together and find common ground. There must be broad-based "buy in" before the Senate can move forward.

One of the most famous uses of the filibuster was to delay passage of civil rights legislation. History tells us this effort failed because the American people saw the wisdom, inherent fairness, and need for the measure. As a result, the civil rights legislation eventually received overwhelming support from all corners of society and doomed those who resisted its implementation.

When you're dealing with changing one sixth of the economy, as the Democrats' healthcare proposal would, it is imperative that diverse groups buy in to the solution. The everyday effects on hospitals, doctors, and citizens will be enormous.

My Democratic colleagues were able to get 60 votes for their initial healthcare bill, but the people of Massachusetts—among the bluest of blue states—said loud and clear that they did not buy in to this solution. It's hard to deny that Scott Brown's election was related to the healthcare debate after he openly campaigned against the Senate bill and pledged he would oppose its passage. It remains difficult to believe that Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat was filled by a Republican who campaigned against the bill. But the more one looks at the issue, the more it becomes clear what people were saying. They were warning Senate Democrats they had gone too far, too fast. The people of Massachusetts clearly supported a Senate filibuster of the legislation, and in many ways, they acknowledged and affirmed the role the filibuster plays in our democracy.

Those who say the filibuster has outlived its usefulness and should be abolished need only to consider another recent example, the Gang of 14, to realize that the most partisan and divisive issues in American politics can still be overcome.

During the Bush administration, judicial nominees were routinely filibustered by Democrats in the Senate. Miguel Estrada, Charles Pickering, Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor, and Priscilla Owens were among the nominees who had enough political support to be confirmed but could not clear the threshold to cut off debate. Senate Republicans, then in the majority, grew increasingly frustrated and devised a parliamentary maneuver where the filibustering of judicial nominees would be ruled out of order. A bare minimum of 50 senators would bring the filibuster to an end. It was termed the "nuclear option" because of the impact it would have on the rules and precedents of the Senate.

Ideological interests on the right and left geared up for battle. But before the showdown could take place, the Gang of 14—seven Republicans and seven Demo­crats representing all ideological and geographical areas of the country—came together to find a pathway forward.

We met in our offices, and details of our work were kept out of the press. Drafts of our compromise were prepared, discarded, rewritten, and circulated again. Progress was slow and not readily evident. Nerves and tempers were on edge. On at least two occasions, I thought negotiations had broken down and would not be put back together. As the clock ticked toward the vote, progress slowly began to emerge, and we finally came to agreement. No senator, party, or ideological interest got everything it wanted. After the announcement, there was plenty of disappointment—and in some cases outright anger—to go around.