Mending the filibuster without ending it
Ruth Marcus has an excellent action plan for reforming the filibuster. Read it. I'd just echo one of the implicit points of her column and say that there are a lot of steps between here and elimination of the filibuster that would make the Senate work a lot better. Ruth gets at most of the ones I'd name, including fast-tracking filibuster votes so they no longer take three days, ending the filibuster on executive branch appointees, and allowing a filibuster only on the motion to vote on a bill.
This gets to the fact that the filibuster works through two mechanisms, one that many people understand and another that few people understand. The one lots of people understand is that it requires a supermajority vote to pass legislation. That's difficult in a polarized political environment, and so legislating is harder. The more arcane effect of the filibuster is to raise the time-cost of voting on something. When you file to hold a vote on breaking a filibuster, you need to allow two days before the vote and then 30-hours of post-vote debate. So that one vote takes about three days. And because a filibuster can be mounted against the motion to move to a bill, the motion to debate a bill, the motion to vote on a bill, and every amendment, it takes at least a week to break a committed filibuster even when the majority has more than 60 votes.
On something big like health-care reform, that doesn't much matter because everyone is willing to spend a week taking the vote. On something like the nomination for the undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs, it's decisive because no one is willing to spend the time to break that filibuster. That means that the filibuster isn't protecting a 41-vote minority. It's protecting a minority as small as one vote, because you only need one senator to credibly promise to use the rules surrounding the filibuster to waste an enormous amount of the Senate's time.
A good example of this was, well, the undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs. The nominee, Lael Brainard (pictured), was held up for over a year by senators promising to gum up the works if her nomination moved. Earlier in the week, she was confirmed, with 78 senators voting in her favor. So the result of the filibuster's rules was that the country didn't have an undersecretary for international affairs during one of the most turbulent economic moments in history, even though 78 senators thought the nominee was a good choice!
Photo credit: Trade, Aid, and Security Coalition.
April 21, 2010; 12:09 PM ET
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