Gun Vote Should Be the Final Filibuster

The vote on gun control proves the Senate is a broken institution.

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Cartoon satirizes the gun lobby's power to block Congressional gun control legislation

I've been shaking my Boggle box to come up with some colorful adjectives to add to the din of words criticizing the Senate for its failure pass the universal background check amendment in the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013.

I didn't get any words as good as egregious or atrocious. Boggle's 16 cube tray didn't give me enough letters to produce words as bumptious as those. But I did get the word Fed, and that reminded me of James Madison's Federalist 10, a paper he wrote in 1787 to argue that "one of the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union is its tendency to break and control the violence of factions."

Madison defined factions as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse …adverse to the rights or other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."  He argued that majority rule would "secure the public good from the danger of factions and preserve the spirit and the form of popular government."

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Sadly, the outcome of this vote is just another example how the filibuster has eroded any and all ability of the Senate to secure the public good. The 46 Senators who voted against cloture put their self-interest ahead of public safety, regardless of the fact that the bill closed all the loopholes in the background check process, a process that today lets 40 percent of guns purchased go unchecked.

The filibuster came into being in 1815. Between 1815 and 1975, Senators were required to stand in the chamber and speak until a 2/3s vote invoked cloture. It was exercised infrequently because the costs of using it were higher. Two-thirds of Senators had to be present and voting in the chamber, and 3/5s sworn. In short, they had to sit and listen to the speech until they fell asleep, wore out, or simply couldn't take it anymore.

In 1975, the Democratic controlled senate strengthened the filibuster. Senators didn't have to be present to use it or engage in endless debate in the chamber. To invoke cloture, the number of required votes was reduced to 3/5s, or 60 out of 100.

Why did Democrats make these changes? They wanted to make sure that if they lost control of the chamber in some future election, they'd have a reliable way to way to block the Republican party.

The Democrats made a bad move. Since 1975, both parties have abused the filibuster to such an extent that today the Senate shows little productivity, and it's a rare occurrence that bills do pass. Under majority rule, S.649 passed 54-46, but that doesn't count because every bill now requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass, a requirement that flies in the face of majority rule. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Just the threat of a filibuster stops legislation in its tracks, and special interests work this to their advantage. The gun lobby compelled those 46 Senators to filibuster the bill by threatening to pull support from their 2014 reelection campaigns.

However, it's not just the gun lobby influencing senators to filibuster bills. Over the past several years, many powerful liberal and conservative interest groups have helped orchestrate filibusters of multiple good and broadly beneficial legislative proposals.

The filibuster slaps popular government in the face. It has to go. It does nothing but obstruct the democratic process, and it isn't needed to give the minority party a stronger voice in the chamber. Even if we got rid of it, each Senator still has plenty of rules and procedures at his or her disposal to slow debate.

How we get rid of it, however, is a discussion I'll reserve for a future column, because we can't expect the very people who benefit from the filibuster to support eliminating it. One thing's for sure: If the status quo persists, we won't see any reasonable gun control laws in this geological age.

  • Read Susan Milligan: Unfolding Before Our Eyes
  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Why the NRA's Manchin-Toomey Senate Vote Win Is Really a Loss
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