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Michael Bennet Calls For Mild Filibuster Reform

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) has a new article in the Huffington Post calling for reforming the filibuster. I’m always glad to hear that more senators realize the Senate rules are broken and need to be changed. At the same time, I’m a little disappointed that Bennet does not just call for restoring the Senate to a majority rule body like the founding fathers intended in the Constitution. Even still, some of the changes he wants would still be a step in the right direction.

Here are the specifics of my filibuster reform proposal:

•Ends anonymous holds so senators will have to answer to their constituents;
•Requires filibuster supporters to actually show up and vote;
•Filibusters at the beginning of debate will be eliminated so we can get back to the business of deliberating bills; and,
•Creates incentives to encourage bipartisanship and allows bills with bipartisan support to move more quickly.

Let’s break down the changes.

•Ends anonymous holds so senators will have to answer to their constituents;

Anonymous holds, since they are more of a tradition than a rule, could probably be eliminated right away. Also, a hold is just a single member’s threat of a filibuster, and if the other reforms are enacted, it should really stop being a problem.

•Requires filibuster supporters to actually show up and vote

This could easily be the most important and strangest change, depending on how it is enforced. It sounds like Bennet is asking to change the cloture rule from needed 3/5 of sworn in Senate members to 3/5 of senators present for the vote. This would make filibuster much more painful for the minority. In theory, it could result in a way for a simple majority to break a filibuster by having all senators in the chamber voting on repeated cloture motions until one side gave up or feel asleep. It could combine the joy of legislating with the fun of a Japanese endurance game show.

•Filibusters at the beginning of debate will be eliminated so we can get back to the business of deliberating bills

This is a simple reform that would get the Senate moving faster without taking away the power of the filibuster to effectively stop legislation. Republicans have taken to using the right to unlimited debate, which is what technically allows a filibuster to happen, to stop a vote on a motion to begin debate on a bill. In practice, all this does is require an additional cloture vote on a bill and waste an additional 30 hours.

•Creates incentives to encourage bipartisanship and allows bills with bipartisan support to move more quickly.

One of the big problems with the filibuster is that it is mainly used right now to simply slow down noncontroversial, bipartisan bills to hold them hostage. A cloture vote takes 30 hours to ripen, and most bills take three cloture votes to stop a filibuster. Even though a uncontroversial bill or nominee might have broad, bipartisan support, one or two senators can hold it hostage for months because the Senate can’t afford to waste the 90 hours of floor time.

It sounds like Bennet is calling for having cloture motions that garner, say, a 2/3 vote (67 members) automatically waive the 30-hour ripening period. That would definitely help speed the passage of a lot of the boring bipartisan nuts and bolts bills, and the confirmation of nominees that need to go through the Senate.

Good, but Too Small

Overall, Bennet’s changes to the filibuster are definitely a good but very small start. The changes would at least help make the Senate perform its most basic functions better, and if the second point were executed properly, it might even be able to restore something resembling majority rule to the Senate in a weird, painful, and very byzantine way.

The problem is that changing the Senate rules is going to require a huge lift regardless what the change is, so I don’t understand why Bennet is setting his sights so low. If he thinks a majority should be able to pass a law, and the Senate should actually be doing the people’s business instead of constantly tying itself in procedural knots, Bennet should be pushing to kill the filibuster completely. Maybe if Republicans thought there were a real chance of the filibuster getting killed, they might preemptively agree to a compromise similar to what Bennet is talking about now.

In negotiations, start by asking for something big, so that you can compromise down to what you really want. . . . Something Democrats clearly still need to learn.

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Jon Walker

Jon Walker

Jonathan Walker grew up in New Jersey. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 2006. He is an expert on politics, health care and drug policy. He is also the author of After Legalization and Cobalt Slave, and a Futurist writer at http://pendinghorizon.com

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