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ETYMOLOGY—FILIBUSTER    PART 2

YESTERDAY, WE BEGAN a review of “filibuster,” its etymology, and its use as a delaying tactic in the U.S. Senate. Here in Part 2, we discuss its history, other filibuster abuses, and countermeasures. (For details, check out the references cited in Part 1.) 

Goodbye, Cloakroom. Benjamin Wallace-Wells discusses Adam Jentleson’s Kill Switch reviewed in The New Yorker, February 4, 2021: “In a new book, Adam Jentleson blames government failure on more than a century of Southern obstruction in the Senate….  Polticians spoke to empty chambers, progress on bills was ‘utterly calcified,’ even the storied Senate cloakroom, where Lyndon Johnson once turned his close-talking personal aggression into legislative progress, now looked like ‘the coat-check area of a restaurant that used to be popular forty years ago.’ ”

“From 1941 to 1970,” Wallace-Wells continues, “the Senate took only thirty-six votes to break filibusters, but in the two-year period from 2009 to 2010 they took ninety-one….  As Senate Minority Leader for almost the entirety of Barack Obama’s Presidency, [Mitch] McConnell used the filibuster much more often than anyone had before, on even the most uncontroversial votes.” 

Power-hungry much?

Image by Damon Winter/The New York Times for Gail Collins’ “The Senate’s F-Bomb,” The New York Times, March 10, 2021.

David Leonhardt writes in The New York Times, January 27, 2021, “Over the past two decades, the filibuster has enabled Republicans to defeat a long list of progressive bills, on climate change, oil subsidies, campaign finance, Wall Street regulation, corporate offshoring, gun control, immigration, gender pay equality and Medicare expansion.” 

Cloture Rule. As described by Molly E. Reynolds at brookings.edu, January 29, 2021, “The most straightforward way to eliminate the filibuster would be to formally change the text of Senate Rule 22, the cloture rule that requires 60 votes to end debate on legislation.”

“Here’s the catch,” she notes, “Ending debate on a resolution to change the Senate’s standing rules requires the support of two-thirds of the members present and voting. Absent a large, bipartisan Senate majority that favors curtailing the right to debate, a formal change in Rule 22 is extremely unlikely.”

Cloture History. “In 1917,” Reynolds describes, “as part of a debate over a proposal to arm American merchant ships as the U.S. prepared to enter World War I, the chamber adopted the first version of its cloture rule: It allowed two-thirds of all senators present and voting to end debate on ‘any pending measure.’ ” 

Reynolds continues, “Several changes to the rule followed in the coming decades. More recently, in 1975, the number of votes needed to invoke cloture on legislative matters was reduced to three-fifths (or 60, if the Senate is at full strength). In 1979 and 1986, the Senate further limited debate once the Senate had imposed cloture on the pending business.

Cloture Motions Filed, 65th Congress to 116th Congress. Image from The Brookings Institution, September 9, 2020.

Reynolds notes, “There’s no perfect way to measure the frequency with which the filibuster has been used over time…. But the number of cloture motions filed is a useful proxy for measuring filibusters.”

Is Reconciliation an Option? The U.S. government process of “reconciliation” has nothing to do with “restoring friendship or harmony,” the word’s ordinary meaning. As noted by Merriam-Webster, it’s “a legislative process that enables expedited passage of a bill relating to certain matters in the federal budget by a simple majority of votes.” 

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 was recently passed by Congress and signed by the President. Its votes in the House and Senate were largely along party lines, and a Senate filibuster by Republicans was precluded by virtue of reconciliation. 

 

Opinion: On March 11, 2021, The New York Times Editorial Board, a group of the newspaper’s opinion journalists, proposed “For Democracy to Stay, the Filibuster Must Go.”

Image by Damon Winter/The New York Times.

The Editorial Board wrote, “It is hard to imagine a more fitting job for Congress than for members to join together to pass a broadly popular law that makes democracy safer, stronger and more accessible to all Americans…. There have also already been many revisions to the filibuster. In the 1970s, Congress created a loophole for spending and revenue bills to avoid the filibuster, allowing such legislation to pass with a simple majority—a process known as reconciliation. More recently, in 2013, Democrats eliminated the filibuster for nominations of lower-court federal judges and executive-branch officials. Four years later, Republicans eliminated it for Supreme Court justices, which allowed President Donald Trump to fill one-third of the high court’s bench with his picks.”

“The perverse result of all this,” the Editorial Board observes, “is that it is now easier to block a piece of legislation, which could be repealed in the next Congress, than it is to block a federal judge seeking a lifetime appointment.”

The Editorial Board concludes, “If the choice is between saving the filibuster and saving democracy, it should be an easy call.”

Many Americans agree, as do I. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

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