FEULNER: Fight for the filibuster

Political device keeps sanity in the Senate’s lawmaking process

Question of the Day

Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

View results

”Filibuster” is not a dirty word. This may seem an obvious point, but it’s worth noting, given the campaign under way on Capitol Hill to severely curtail a practice designed to ensure that legislation goes through a process of calm, reasoned debate.

In the Founders’ vision, the Senate was the “cooling saucer” that would temper legislation developed in the high-temperature House of Representatives. The filibuster grew out of this function. The United States, after all, is a constitutional republic, not a direct democracy. The majority can’t simply steamroll the minority. The minority gets a voice, too, in shaping legislation. In the Senate, that voice is expressed at times through the filibuster.

As anyone who has seen “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” knows, the filibuster is intended to slow things down, whether it be a bill or a nomination. This isn’t to suggest that all filibusters involve the kind of theatrics actor Jimmy Stewart went through in the movie. Today, most filibusters are simply a declaration that one objects to a piece of legislation. They don’t necessitate marathon talking sessions.

Have some members of Congress abused the filibuster from time to time, using it primarily to leverage their own power? Yes. However, this has occurred largely in reaction to the majority leader’s tactic of “filling the amendment tree.” Essentially, this means the leader holds the floor long enough to offer a series of amendments to a particular bill - and prevent other senators from amending it. If it’s wrong to abuse the filibuster, surely it’s wrong to fill the amendment tree.

But we don’t hear liberal senators decrying the conditions that may have led to some abuse. Instead, we hear only half the story.

“These filibusters have delayed things,” said Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat. “They have obstructed the ability of the Senate to do its job.” Actually, the Senate’s job is to give full and due consideration to the views of both the majority and the minority. And when senators are blocked from participating - as is their right under the Constitution - the Senate is failing at its job.

Yet how have Mr. Udall and other like-minded senators responded? With a movement to strictly limit opportunities to filibuster - to make “talking filibusters,” such as the one in “Mr. Smith,” the only way for frustrated senators to slow things down and attempt to change legislation.

This movement is, at base, a power grab. And it’s one that, if successful, could come back to haunt Mr. Udall and his colleagues. Republicans already hold 47 seats in the Senate. What if, after the next election, that chamber flips from Democratic control, as the House already has? According to Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican: “All [Democrats] need to do is watch [House Speaker] John Boehner [Ohio Republican] over the next two years, and say, ‘Do I want that in the Senate?’ ” What goes around comes around.

What we really need is for the Senate to return to a period of genuine debate and discussion. The filibuster is a key element in this. As former Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said in his Nov. 30 farewell address: “I can understand the temptation to change the rules that make the Senate so unique - and, simultaneously, so frustrating. But whether such a temptation is motivated by a noble desire to speed up the legislative process or by pure political expedience, I believe such changes would be unwise.”

Mr. Dodd was right. At a time when communication occurs more and more through quick sound bites and dashed-off tweets, it’s more important than ever to engage in true and civil debate. That means slowing down and, yes, delaying things from time to time. It means preserving the filibuster, no matter how much it may inconvenience those in power.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

blog comments powered by Disqus
TWT Video Picks
You Might Also Like
  • Maureen McDonnell looks on as her husband, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, made a statement on Tuesday after the couple was indicted on corruption charges. (associated press)

    PRUDEN: Where have the big-time grifters gone?

  • This photo taken Jan. 9, 2014,  shows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gesturing as he answers a question during a news conference  at the Statehouse in Trenton.  Christie will propose extending the public school calendar and lengthening the school day in a speech he hopes will help him rebound from an apparent political payback scheme orchestrated by key aides. The early front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will make a case Tuesday Jan. 14, 2014, that children who spend more time in school graduate better prepared academically, according to excerpts of his State of the State address obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

    BRUCE: Bombastic arrogance or humble determination? Chris Christie’s choice

  • ** FILE ** Secretary of State Hillary Rodham testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

    PRUDEN: The question to haunt the West

  • Get Breaking Alerts