By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
I devoted my column this week to tracing how the filibuster has changed over the last 50 years and why our perception of it doesn't quite synch up with reality. In brief, the filibuster is used in a radically different way now than it was as recently as the 1950s and 1960s. The filibuster has always been an important tool to help protect the rights of the minority in the U.S. Senate (and it remains one of the things that distinguishes the Senate from the House). But historically it was a big gun that was rarely used. A couple of things changed in the '60s and '70s, however, which made it easier to both manage a filibuster and also to break one. First Senate procedures were changed so that a filibuster would stall a single bill, but not bring the chamber to a halt; second the number of votes required to break a filibuster was lowered from 67 to 60. Starting around 20 years ago, the number of filibusters--which had been drifting up anyway--dramatically increased.
There's been some debate about whose to blame for the rise in filibusters, but as Senate historian Don Ritchie told me last week, "It's really not a Republican Party position and a Democratic Party position, it's a minority party position and a majority party position." In other words whichever party has the majority dislikes the filibuster and whichever one is out of power loves it.
But it's gotten out of control. What was once a rarely used tool is now the rule of the day: In the last Congress (2007-2008), an astonishing 70 percent of major legislation was filibustered. Protecting the rights of the party out of power is important, but that principle is being abused, and to the detriment of the republic. At some point protecting the rights of the minority party morphed into granting them a veto over the legislative agenda--and leaving the majority in a position of accountability without power.
And part of the problem is, I think, perception: Most people, recalling Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith and Strom Thurmond as the voice of segregation assume that the filibuster is being used the way it always has been. But they have to learn that it is not. Its use has changed and it's pernicious. Again, you can read my column for the details.