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The Seniority System and the Filibuster Make Congress Weak

The Federal Government has three independent and theoretically co-equal branches. But presently it is unbalanced, and the chief source of the imbalance is the US Congress.

Congress is either a very weak, or a very strong institution, depending on one’s perspective. If you’re opposed to the status quo, and interested in blocking legislation changing things, then Congress is very strong in its ability to block legislation, even for generations, that the majority of people and various Presidents want. On the other hand, if you’re interested in passing legislation and using the Government to help solve critical societal problems, then Congress is way too weak, and, in fact, makes the rest of our Government dysfunctional in coping with problems facing the United States.

I won’t go through the litany of serious problems that face the United States right now. Anyone reading this knows what they are. What is significant is that most of them are not new. Some of them are a generation or more old, and none of them have been seriously addressed by the Government, because Congress can’t unify to pass legislation, when the stakes are high and many interests are involved.

Why is Congress so immobilist and weak when it comes to passing legislation that will solve problems, and also, so very strong when it comes to blocking it? There are many causes and reasons that we’re all aware of, and many of them are inter-related, but from the viewpoint of those who want change, the biggest problem is the power that individual Congresspersons and Senators have relative to the whole of either the House or Senate, or to the majority in their political parties. The sources of this individual power are two: the seniority system in both Houses of Congress, and the filibuster in the Senate.

It’s the power of a large number of individual Congresspersons and Senators that makes Congress strong in blocking legislation and weak in passing it. Individuals with power over particular legislative domains are powerful enough to block legislation, but each of them is too weak alone to pass legislation, without compromising with many other others, and watering down, or undermining, whatever legislation it is they’re trying to pass. So, it’s this individual power that is the source of imbalance among the branches. And if we want to fix the imbalance, we have to do something to eliminate the sources of that power.

In the House, the problem is much less serious than in the Senate, because the seniority system is not so important there. Seniority has been frequently breached in the House over the past 30 years. So, even though it still counts for a lot in determining who will chair committees, in that body, the Speaker of the House, who is democratically elected by the members, has much more power to determine who will chair the committees, and to hold the committee chairs accountable. Also, the Speaker of the House can weaken seniority even more, if she chooses to, by using other criteria for selecting chairpersons.

In the Senate, on the other hand, seniority is the the determining factor in deciding who will chair committees, and the respect for the seniority system that still exists there, translates into much less power for the Majority Leader of the Senate than the Speaker of the House enjoys. It also means that the Senate, as a collective legislative body, has less actual power, relative to its members, to pass new legislation than the House has. To strengthen the power of the Majority Leader, the power of the majority political party, and also the power of the Senate as a problem solving institution, the seniority system needs to be seriously weakened or entirely abandoned, so that the will of the Senate collectively, can prevail over the will of the individual committee chairs.

Technically, this is easy to do. To end the critical role of seniority, the Senate only has to change Senate Rules by a vote of 51 Senators, or 50 Senators plus the the Vice President. If the majority party, the Democrats, wanted that to happen it could make the change. Progressives ought to pressure the Party to do that and to educate the public to the fact that the Democrats, at the moment, bear full responsibility for who their committee chairs are, and for their behavior, since they are responsible for maintaining the seniority system, and for selecting the current committee chairs based on seniority.

Not to put too fine a point on this, it is the Democratic Party and its democratically-elected Majority Leader, Harry Reid, that is responsible for both the make-up of the Senate Finance Committee, and for the fact that Max Baucus is its Chairman, rather than, say, Jay Rockefeller. Also, it is the Senate Democratic Party that is largely responsible for the 3 month delay in the legislative process on health care reform that we have seen due to Baucus’s untiring efforts to secure a non-existent bipartisan agreement with the Republicans on the committee. Still further, the terrible bill that is emerging from that committee, is their responsibility, as well, since things certainly would have gone much better with this legislation, had the seniority system not been in place, and had Baucus not been chairing that committee. In fact, even though the President clearly did not want an enhanced Medicare for All, single-payer system considered by that committee, it was Baucus who took that option “off the table” in the Senate. If someone else had been the Chairperson, we might have had a fair national debate on health care reform including enhanced Medicare for All, as well as the public option, from the beginning.

The filibuster is the second major institution in the Senate that makes that body weak as a positive force for legislation bringing change. The filibuster undermines majority rule in the Senate. It undermines legislative mandates given to the Senate by the electorate. It has resulted in the Senate becoming much more powerful than the House and the Executive branch in blocking legislation and maintaining the status quo. It has also resulted in the Senate becoming more powerful than the House in determining the make-up of new legislation, since if the House wants to pass new legislation, it, along with the Senate majority, must compromise with the Senate minority that determines whether cloture votes in the Senate will succeed. But, finally, and most importantly, it has resulted in the Senate as a collective body becoming weak relative to its individual members, and also in becoming a weak instrument for national problem solving.

This nation can no longer afford a Senate that can’t do its job, or that does it in such a way that its legislation can’t solve our problems, or that does it in such a way that it is the place where good legislative proposals go to die. Progressives need to recognize that the filibuster is a sad excuse for inaction by the majority party in the Senate. It is a practice upheld by a rule that can be abandoned at any time by the Senate, by a vote of 50 Senators and the Vice-President, using a procedure that acquired the nickname of “the nuclear option” when the Republicans threatened to use it during Bill Frist’s tenure.

I’ve written about the filibuster and how to get rid of it using the “nuclear option” before. And Chis Bowers at Open Left has also recently described it. Its significance is that the filibuster is nothing but an excuse by the majority party for inaction on controversial measures that have aroused lobbyist opposition. The “60 vote lie” is an excuse for not legislating the will of the people. In the health care reform context, it has been an excuse for seeking the unicorn of bipartisanship, and for delay in passing reform that would weaken the role of private insurance companies in accelerating the increase in health care costs and in writing the rules about coverage, and about who among us will live and who will die, who will prosper and who will go bankrupt, whose lives will be blighted with divorce and stress of various kinds, and who will be reasonably content.

It’s time for the Democratic Party and the United States Congress to give up procedural excuses for inaction in legislative matters and to get rid of the filibuster for good. It is a relic of another age when the nation didn’t have to act as rapidly and decisively as it needs to do now to solve its problems. If the filibuster is not eliminated as a tactic, the Democratic Party will bear responsibility. It will be to blame. It only takes 51 votes from the majority party to get that done, and if it is done, passage of legislation, including health care reform legislation, will thereafter require only a majority vote in the Senate, as the constitution originally envisioned.

If it is done, and if the Senate diminishes or eliminates the role of its seniority system, it will be able to take its place beside the House as an institution that can solve the problems its members are elected to do something about, and it will, finally, be able to play its role in restoring the legislative branch as co-equal to the Executive, and the Judiciary in the American system of Government. We so badly need that now, that the Senate Democrats should eliminate the filibuster in the process of passing health care reform legislation. If they do, it will ease the path of not only health care reform, but all the rest of their legislative agenda also. Enough of the filibuster! Don’t wait any longer! Don’t hesitate! Bury it forever! Just do it!

(Also posted at the Alllifeisproblemsolving blog where there may be more comments)

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Joseph M. Firestone, Ph.D. is Managing Director, CEO of the Knowledge Management Consortium International (KMCI), and Director and co-Instructor of KMCI’s CKIM Certificate program, as well as Director of KMCI’s synchronous, real-time Distance Learning Program. He is also CKO of Executive Information Systems, Inc. a Knowledge and Information Management Consultancy.

Joe is author or co-author of more than 150 articles, white papers, and reports, as well as the following book-length publications: Knowledge Management and Risk Management; A Business Fable, UK: Ark Group, 2008, Risk Intelligence Metrics: An Adaptive Metrics Center Industry Report, Wilmington, DE: KMCI Online Press, 2006, “Has Knowledge management been Done,” Special Issue of The Learning Organization: An International Journal, 12, no. 2, April, 2005, Enterprise Information Portals and Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003; Key Issues in The New Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003, and Excerpt # 1 from The Open Enterprise, Wilmington, DE: KMCI Online Press, 2003.

Joe is also developer of the web sites,,, and the blog “All Life is Problem Solving” at, and He has taught Political Science at the Graduate and Undergraduate Levels, and has a BA from Cornell University in Government, and MA and Ph.D. degrees in Comparative Politics and International Relations from Michigan State University.