Congress has struggled in recent times. Facing low approval ratings, the legislative branch of the U.S. government has received widespread criticism for perceived inaction, on topics as diverse as passing gun legislation to keeping the government open. In light of Congress’s problems, some politicians have begun proposing rule changes in the hopes of forcing Congress to operate more smoothly. In that vein, Sen. David Perdue (R-Georgia) and Democratic opponent Teresa Tomlinson have recently come out in support of abolishing the filibuster in the Senate.
Though the filibuster has played a part in limiting the Senate’s ability to act, abolishing it goes too far. Instead, the Senate should merely weaken the filibuster by lowering the votes needed for cloture to 55.
According to the U.S. Senate website, the Founding Fathers wished for the Senate to have unlimited debate so that senators could speak for as long as they needed to on a topic. In practice, this allows that a senator or group of senators to “filibuster” a bill they oppose by speaking endlessly, essentially blocking a vote. Nowadays, the Senate can force an end to debate through cloture, but doing so requires 60 votes.
Though the ability to ram through one’s preferred legislation seems tempting, getting rid of the filibuster carries severe risks. Without a filibuster, the minority party would be unable to check the majority’s whims. A party that controls the vice presidency and has at least 50 votes in the Senate could pass a piece of legislation without any input from the other side, rendering the opposition powerless. Thus, abolishing the filibuster could quickly mutate the Founding Fathers’ fear of tyranny by the majority into a modern fear of tyranny by the minority.
This possibility makes the support of Tomlinson and other Democrats for ending the filibuster particularly perplexing. Given the nature of the Senate, rural states with low populations have a disproportionate amount of power, and rural areas tend to lean Republican. By advocating an end to the filibuster, Tomlinson is setting up a future in which Republicans can run roughshod over Democratic opposition.
Still, the 60-vote requirement to establish cloture does seem to be too high. In an increasingly partisan environment, it is unlikely that the Senate could find enough votes to end opposition to a bill that has broad public support but a partisan split. Currently, the Senate has 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two Independents, both of whom caucus with the Democrats. Thus, should the Republicans wish to pass a bill that Democrats chose to filibuster, they would need seven senators, a sizable portion of the caucus, to very publicly break with their colleagues and vote against the party’s wishes.
In addition, the overuse of the filibuster is a growing problem. Since 1917, when cloture was first introduced as a tool to end filibusters, there have been over 1,300 filibusters. The past 12 years have accounted for nearly 600 of those filibusters. Without a change to the rules, minority parties could continue to simply block any legislation that the party leadership opposes.
Keeping the filibuster but reducing the number of votes for cloture to 55 offers a solution. In Senates with a small partisan split, bills will require at least some level of bipartisanship to pass. And, when one party has more firm control over the Senate and a political mandate from the public, that party will be able to govern without worrying that the other side can kill any proposal.
The public is right to be frustrated with the current Congress. On a range of issues, Democrats and Republicans have failed to find common ground and political grandstanding has become all too common. However, before deciding to overhaul our institutions, we should remember why they exist in the first place. The filibuster promotes debate and discussion. Though senators have abused the filibuster in recent times, it would be rash to do away with it entirely. Simply reducing cloture will encourage Congress to pass more legislation while retaining the need for senators to work across the aisle.