A step toward breaking gridlock
Though modest, the revised filibuster rules adopted Thursday by the Senate should speed up the legislative process. In some instances, the Senate has gone from merely deliberative to dead in the water.
For example, the rules set relatively speedy timelines for disposing of executive and judicial nominations below the level of the cabinet, appellate judges and Supreme Court justices.
The Brookings Institution reports that judicial nominees waited an average 139 days for the Senate to act during President Obama’s first term, compared to 54 days during George W. Bush’s administration and 30 days during Bill Clinton’s.
And in the last two years, the Senate passed the fewest number of bills since 1947, according to one estimate.
Still, the new rules affirm the continued right of a minority to slow down legislation. After all, the Founding Fathers did intend for the Senate to be the more deliberative chamber of Congress.
And if 41 of 100 senators object to a bill, they can still block it. This option, absent in the House of Representatives, has served as an essential element protecting the nation against the destabilizing tyranny of transient majorities.
The new rules guarantee the minority the right to offer two amendments to any legislation that is pending, removing one motive for obstruction. In exchange, they shorten the time a minority can delay a bill that has reached the Senate floor or is being sent into conference with the House.
The reform legislation, the product of negotiations between Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, drew criticism from some members of both parties,
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who helped craft the bill, said: “I believe the outcome of this hard-earned compromise will be ... a greater degree of comity in the Senate which would allow us to achieve the legislative goals that all of us seek.”
It is too bad, though, that the Senate did not agree to require its members to stand and orate at length if they want to obstruct legislative business.
That old-fashioned form of filibuster was done away with in the 1975 reform that introduced the silent filibuster.
It had the merit of making senators show up in person to explain, again and again, what they object to in pending legislation.
The inherent physical toll actually served to limit the filibuster to bills on which there was a major objection.
But the rule change may finally ban one of the most egregious abuses of senatorial power, the black-ball veto on nominations known as the “secret hold.”
The new rules reaffirm a 2011 decision by the Senate to require a senator who withholds his consent to legislation to appear on the Senate floor and explain himself.
If this rule is enforced, senators could no longer halt legislation or nominations by that arbitrary method.
The filibuster reform deal also includes the Senate Democratic leadership’s promise to produce a federal budget plan for the first time in four years.
Maybe the rule revision represents a recognition that the nation can’t afford continued gridlock.
If so, it’s a welcome change of pace, both in attitude and in the way that the public’s business is done in the U.S. Senate.