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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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Fillibuster

It is becoming increasingly clear that something needs to be done about the US Senate’s “rule” that requires the consent of at least 60 senators to get just about any piece of legislation through. The filibuster (literally: “talking out a bill”) does not appear in the Constitution. Instead, it is a self-imposed decree which dates back to the founding fathers.

First, I will provide some background information.As part of the Great Compromise at the Constitutional Convention, the House of Representatives was made to be the popular body representing the will of the people, while the Senate would protect small states and minority views. For more than a century, this meant that every senator had an unlimited right to speak.If a senator desired to end a debate, they needed to conduct a vote and gather the approval of every member.  In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson wanted to get around a few senators filibustering his efforts to get America ready for World War I. His supporters in the Senate adopted Rule 22, which allowed for an end to filibuster if two-thirds of the Senate members present agreed. Known as the “cloture rule,” it was changed in 1975 to allow three-fifths of the Senate to end filibuster. Thus we arrive at the magic number: 60.

For most of the country’s history, filibusters were few and far between. When they did occur, though, it was quite a spectacle. Senators from the filibustering party would stand up and talk for hours, even days on end, about completely irrelevant topics. They would tell tales from their childhood and read from the dictionary, just to kill time until the other party gave up or the session came to an end.

In recent times, however, the mere threat of a filibuster has become as powerful as a filibuster itself. So nowadays, instead of needing a group of determined senators to hold the floor by rambling for days, certainly not an easy task, all the opposition needs is 41 members on its side.

To be sure, some kind of check is needed against majority tyranny, and that is what the filibuster does in theory. But in modern practice, it has essentially given the minority veto power: all they need to do to kill any measure is disagree with it.  Since Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006, Republicans have used the threat of filibuster far more than at any other time in history. It has become a part of the standard operating procedure. Aptly named the “party of no,” the GOP has done everything in its power to delay and obstruct any kind of major legislative progress. The filibuster has become a serious threat facing effective governance.

Case in point: Last week, Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama placed a unilateral “blanket hold” on seventy of President Obama’s nominees for various positions in the federal government. He is blocking these qualified individuals, some of whom would work at vital national security posts at the Department of Defense, until he is sure that his home state of Alabama will get a lucrative $40 billion contract to build new aerial refueling tankers for the Air Force. He also wouldn’t mind getting construction started in Huntsville, on the FBI explosives lab he earmarked $45 million for back in 2007. Under the current filibuster rules, a supermajority of, you guessed it, sixty votes is required to lift the hold on each individual nominee, a tedious task to say the least. If something like this happened anywhere else outside the government, it would be called extortion.

Up until last week, the Democrats did have exactly sixty votes in the Senate. Why then, couldn’t they get anything done? It was difficult to get all sixty to agree on any one thing. There are variations along the left end of the political spectrum, after all. That was the issue when trying to pass health care reform: a handful of conservative Democratic senators had tremendous negotiating power and were able to delay voting until they got exactly what they wanted.

One thing the Republicans were quick to do recently was the swearing in of Scott Brown, their newly elected senator from Massachusetts, and the 41st member of their caucus. Thus, the count in the Senate is now 59-41, and there is even less chance of making progress.

So what can be done about it? Why hasn’t there been a populist backlash against this clearly unreasonable legislative rule? For starters, the public needs to be informed. The latest study from the Pew Research Center found that only 26% of Americans know that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. If enough people demand action from their Senators, it is possible that the “rule” could be changed, via a simple majority vote on the first day of the next session. It could also be changed through legislation now. However, such a bill would, most likely, be filibustered.

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