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Posted at 12:49 PM ET, 01/18/2011

An eloquent case for filibuster reform

By Greg Sargent

Senator Tom Harkin, who has been thinking hard about this issue for years, made what I thought was a particularly eloquent case for filibuster reform on a conference call with reporters this morning. Here's a lightly edited transcript of what he said:

"What has the filibuster become? A means whereby a minority in the Senate dictates what we can and cannot do. We have stood democracy on its head. The minority has the power, and not the responsibility, to [stop] legislation. The majority has the responsibility, and not the power, to enact legislation.

"The minority determines what the Senate does. It determines what the Congress can do...Therefore, a small minority in the Senate now decides what happens in this country."

That's the rub. Now, some will point out that the current crop of filibuster reforms won't change the underlying problem -- the 60 vote threshold -- and hence won't do away with the fundamental dynamic that Harkin is decrying. But Harkin argued on the call that the proposed reforms, which include doing away with the filibuster of the motion to proceed, eliminating secret holds, and forcing Senators to actually filibuster, will make it far harder for a minority to use the tool as part of a broader strategy to frustrate democracy.

That aside, the broader implications of Harkin's case are worth considering. His argument is that filibuster reform won't change the filibuster as we've known it; rather, it would reform what the filibuster has become. It has become unrecognizable. Previously, it was all about protecting the rights of the minority, and all about giving the minority a tool with which to slow things down and to alert the public to the imminent passage of legislation it considers worthy of more public attention.

In its current form, however, it has completely restructured how the Senate operates, creating the need for supermajority support to ensure the passage of anything at all. Harkin's point is that it doesn't have to be this way, despite the fact that many Democrats have internalized this new dynamic as natural and inevitable.

Harkin's formulation blows apart many of the objections from Senate Republicans to reform: That it constitutes the silencing of individual Senators, or that it represents a "power grab." In Harkin's formulation, filibuster reform will prevent the minority's ongoing "power grab." This is about nothing more or less than restoring functional democracy.

More about what's going on behind the scenes right now with the filibuster reform push when I learn it, but for now, it's good to see Harkin framing the stakes in such a grandiose way.

By Greg Sargent  | January 18, 2011; 12:49 PM ET
Categories:  Senate Dems, Senate Republicans, filibuster  
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Why haven't you banned James Joyce?

Posted by: Liam-still | January 18, 2011 12:53 PM | Report abuse

What's the actual "status" of the Senate right now? Are they in session, in some kind of adjourned "first day" or something else?

Posted by: jnc4p | January 18, 2011 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Obama's smear campaign: not eloquent

Greg - why haven't you come out forcefully against the uncivil behavior of the democrats during the 5-day smear campaign ?


Bush only gets BOGUS BLAME

Never, ever try to even attempt to give him credit for anything.


Posted by: RainForestRising | January 18, 2011 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Mitch McConnell is coming back from the war zone today so it must be recess.

Posted by: shrink2 | January 18, 2011 12:58 PM | Report abuse

More about what's going on behind the scenes right now with the filibuster reform push when I learn it, but for now, it's good to see Harkin framing the stakes in such a grandiose way.

Grandiose? Not sure I agree with that word choice. It has a pejorative connotation. Tom Harkin has always struck me as one of the most down to earth Senators we have.

Posted by: Liam-still | January 18, 2011 1:30 PM | Report abuse

"Harkin's formulation blows apart many of the objections from Senate Republicans to reform..."

...and obviates objections on 'the other side of the aisle' that Democrats should fear fillibuster reform because they could soon be the minority party.

Posted by: mmyotis | January 18, 2011 1:44 PM | Report abuse

The reforms proposed are a refreshing change from standard political overreach. They don't go to far, they try to solve the problem at hand rather than alter how things fundamentally work.
One change I might like additionally is to require a 41 vote 'debate/filibuster continuation' vote rather than the 60 vote cloture rule we have now. Force the minority to stand up, continually in order to stop things.
But taking us towards the utopian 'Mr. Smith Goes To Washington' isn't really a bad thing is it? This starts that direction without veering off into unrelated changes. As I said, a refreshing change to what normally happens in situations like this in Washington.

Posted by: rpixley220 | January 18, 2011 1:44 PM | Report abuse

@Greg: "Harkin's formulation blows apart many of the objections from Senate Republicans to reform: That it constitutes.. a "power grab."

Pure BS, Greg. There can be no argument that some of the proposed rule changes give more power to the majority.

Posted by: sbj3 | January 18, 2011 1:47 PM | Report abuse


Why haven't you banned Buck Mulligan yet?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 18, 2011 1:57 PM | Report abuse


Why haven't you banned Dolly Parton yet.

My cousin Aiden was crazy about Dolly. He moved from Ireland to be near her. He really was just a stalker. One night he broke in, while Dolly was sleeping and gave her a hickey on the neck.

The police came and arrested him, and immediately took him to have his eyes examined.

Posted by: Liam-still | January 18, 2011 2:06 PM | Report abuse


Why haven't you banned Liam for participating in the smear campaign against an innocent person, attempting to link them to a mass murder?

That HAS to be against the rules.


Posted by: RainForestRising | January 18, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse

The whole thing is odd. The filibuster isn't listed in the Constitution or any amendments. It was a comity device designed to make sure the minority party had some rights.

The current minority has abused a device designed for comity, hence they stand it on it's head.

Throw the damned thing out. Let them vote.

Posted by: kindness1 | January 18, 2011 2:32 PM | Report abuse

I sense the Republicans in the Senate will have to agree to some of these filibuster changes because they fear the teaparty wingnuts going rogue and taking the Senate hostage for political gain.

Posted by: Beeliever | January 18, 2011 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Teaparty wingnuts going rogue?

Say it ain't so beeliever!

Who can imagine a tea party wingnut going rogue. Oops that's right she wrote a book about it.

Posted by: rukidding7 | January 18, 2011 4:14 PM | Report abuse

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