Harry, Fix the Senate

Action Alert!

Call NOW to push filibuster reform

Possibly as early as today U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will make a decision that will determine if the Senate will remain a dysfunctional body that can’t address any of the nation’s problems for the next two years.

Senator Reid is putting together his filibuster rules reform package today to be presented to the Senate immediately.  If that package doesn’t contain at a minimum the requirement that all filibusters must be a “talking filibuster”, then the Senate will continue to be paralyzed from taking any meaningful actions.  More background on this issue is below.

Call Senator Reid’s office NOW.  202-224-3542 and press 1 to leave this message:

“Please include a “talking filibuster” requirement in Senator Reid’s rules reform package.”

This could be the most important call you will make for moving the nation forward.


Current U.S. Senate rules require 60 votes out of 100 to end a filibuster and allow the Senate to proceed on an issue.  Filibusters in the Senate are at an all-time high: during the six years that Senator Harry Reid has been the Majority Leader, he has had to file cloture motions (to break a filibuster) 386 times. During the six years prior to his time as Majority Leader, cloture motions had to be filed 201 times. During the six years that Lyndon Johnson was Majority Leader, he had to file a cloture motion only once.

Filibustering is also occurring at steps of the legislative process that used to be noncontroversial. There has been a major increase in filibustering motions to proceed, which is filibustering against the beginning of debate. In the last six years there have been 130 filibusters used to block the beginning of debate — more than a third of all such filibusters in the 20th century.

The following rule changes are under consideration:

The Talking Filibuster

The most significant reform currently under consideration is known as the “talking filibuster.” It simply proposes that if a Senator or group of Senators want to block the majority from getting to a decision on a bill (or nomination or other business before the Senate) by insisting on their right to unlimited debate, then they need to be on the floor and debating. Under current rules, a Senator can literally phone in an objection. Simply notifying a party leader that the Senator would object to the Senate acting on a given bill is a filibuster, and that’s enough stop further progress. To overcome that objection, the Senate has to invoke “cloture,” the official process for ending a filibuster, which not only requires a supermajority of 60 Senators to agree to end debate, but also four days of procedural time.

The “talking filibuster” would say that if a majority of Senators want to end debate, but not 60, then the filibustering Senators would be required to hold the floor and debate continuously. If at any point no one is debating the bill that the minority is insisting requires more debate, then a majority of Senators (51 if all Senators are voting) can end debate and move toward final passage.

There are two goals here: One is to put the burden of obstructing the Senate on those who would obstruct. Requiring more time and energy in order to block the majority from passing legislation should move the Senate back toward the earlier more balanced situation where filibusters were a rarely-used procedural tool. In addition, this would bring transparency, debate, and deliberation to the process. If Senators want to object to bills coming to a vote, they should not be able to do it quietly, with the public unable to know who is objecting or why. They should stand on the floor, make their case, and let the public and other Senators judge their arguments.

No More Filibustering Simple Procedural Steps

Motions to Proceed

The current minority has brought filibustering to a whole new level, not just in terms of the number of bills and nominations filibustered, but also in filibustering procedural votes where the minority’s right to make sure their voice is heard has little relevance. For example, a “motion to proceed” is the way the Senate decides to start debate on a new bill — by deciding to “proceed to” the consideration of the bill. There have been an escalating number of filibusters against motions to proceed. If the filibuster is a tool for the minority to insist on further debate, it makes little sense that the question of whether to even start debate should be filibustered. This behavior does not encourage debate, it blocks it. So one proposal is to eliminate filibusters against motions to proceed.

 Motions to get to Conference Committee

Another example is sending a bill to conference committee. After the Senate has passed a bill, if the same bill is passed in a different form by the House of Representatives, a conference committee is appointed to reconcile the differences. In the Senate, three separate motions have to be adopted in order to set up a conference committee, each of which can be filibustered. This too makes no sense: a majority of the Senate has already agreed to pass the bill (which in recent years almost universally means 60 Senators have already voted to end a filibuster against the bill), so there’s no justification for filibustering against the next routine step in the legislative process. So the second proposal in this category is to eliminate filibusters on motions to proceed.

Other Ideas

Expediting Confirmation of Nominations

The last four years have seen an unprecedented level of obstruction against nominees submitted by the President for Senate confirmation. Until recently, non-controversial nominees were relatively filibustered and were often confirmed by unanimous consent (without even a vote) after committees vetted them. Nominees are now routinely held up only to slow the progress in getting the President’s choices confirmed — in the past year there have been multiple judges who had 90 or more Senators vote for their confirmation after the cloture process was used. Since there were far more than 60 votes for the nominee, the filibuster is being used in these cases simply to slow down the process. The most likely proposal to address this problem (beyond the Talking Filibuster, which should make this kind of filibuster much more rare) is to eliminate the 30 hours of debate that are allowed after 60 Senators have voted to end a filibuster against a nominee. Since nominations aren’t subject to amendment, there is no rationale for further debate. Furthermore, this would allow the Senate to vote on nominations back-to-back so that even if they need to use the cloture process on the first nomination, they could move on to rapidly confirm multiple nominees in a row.

Shifting the Burden

Under the current rules, the burden of ending the filibuster falls on the majority — 60 senators must show up and vote for cloture in order to bring debate to a close. This is one reason filibustering is easier on Senators trying to obstruct than it is on Senators who are working to pass legislation. If the burden were changed so that 41 Senators had to show up and vote against cloture in order to keep a filibuster going, the burden would shift to those who seek obstruction.

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