Sunday, February 15, 2009

Reforming the filibuster - Updated

Steve Benen notes that somehow it's become accepted practice to evoke the filibuster for every little thing when historically it was rarely used. I've been saying for a long time now that they destroyed the intent of the instrument when they changed the rule so the mere threat of a filibuster was enough to shut down a vote.

I've seen quite a few calls to eliminate it altogether. I think that's wrong. As it was originally constructed, it serves as an important safeguard to protect minority interests. I do however believe that they need to revoke the new rule and require that a filibuster actually be conducted if the oppostion feels strongly enough to evoke it. I'm pretty sure that would cut down on its indiscriminate use.

Update: Matt weighs in to suggest the filibuster be eliminated altogether and suggests that historically it was never intended as an instrument at all. In reading the history I think he misinterprets the Founder's intent. Unlimited debate was a feature of our early Congressional assemblies. It was rightly abolished as unwieldy in the House, as the membership grew, but the Senate is, and remains, a small enough body to use it as an effective safeguard on the balance of power. And history certainly makes my point.
The filibuster has tremendously increased in frequency of use since the 1960s. In the 1960s, no Senate term had more than seven filibusters. One of the filibusters of the 1960s, was when southern Democratic Senators attempted to block the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by making a filibuster that lasted for 75 hours.
It was used 104 times in 2008 and that's just through October.

One might argue that even under the former rule, it's been used for bad ends, but any tool can be abused. People have committed murders using a plumber's wrench. Does that mean we should abolish wrenches? A filibuster can be broken by simply not allowing any other business to be conducted until its conclusion. If the argument is good, then it succeeds in swaying the debate. If the argument is bad and it becomes clear its purpose is simply to obstruct, public opinion will force its conclusion. The important thing is the argument is actually aired, and debate is not shut down by mere threat.

My friend BJ at Newshoggers makes a similiar argument to one I made the last time this came up. We shouldn't be to quick to disarm the opposition when we're in power, lest the we find ourselves defenseless when the balance of power shifts, as it always does. The filibuster has served us well, for well over a century, until they changed the rule to make it too easy to use. Reverting the rule will serve us much better than abolishing the tool.

[More posts daily at The Detroit News.]

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