Star Tribune

Opinion

Gridlock: Looks like it's here to stay

The filibuster -- or, more accurately, the 60-vote requirement -- guarantees it.

Article by: MYLES SPICER

Updated: November 29, 2012 - 6:59 PM

The election is over. The "honeymoon" period is on. And in response to the public's demand that the two parties start cooperating and getting needed legislation accomplished, there is plenty of sweet-talking among the outgoing and incoming politicians.

That's the good news. The bad news is there is one element -- largely overlooked -- that virtually assures a continuation of the devastating gridlock that we have seen in the past four years. That is the Senate filibuster. And Republicans not only have disavowed any attempts to change the filibuster rules, they are generally committed to using the same tactics they employed to stifle legislation in the past.

A quick history: Filibusters go back as far as the Roman Senate, as well as the British Parliament. Our founding fathers created the Senate as a check on the House of Representatives, which was closer to the people and would therefore, the founders believed, be unreliable in creating sound laws. But at that time, both houses were allowed the filibuster. However, in 1811, the House approved rules to limit debate. The Senate did not follow.

In 1917, in order to pass World War I legislation, the Senate did reform ... kind of. It passed Rule 22, which allowed it to end debate on a bill if two-thirds of senators vote for "cloture."

But it was still powerless against filibusters supported by more than a third of senators, which explains how Southern Democrats were able to use filibusters to kill every meaningful civil-rights bill for the next 47 years, including even antilynching bills introduced numerous times in succeeding years.

It was an odd act of irony that made the claim that the filibuster protected the rights of minority in the Senate while at the same time it was damaging the rights of minorities in America.

In 1975, the Senate changed the number of votes needed for cloture from 67 to 60 -- where it stands today. But even with that modest improvement, this current Senate has employed the filibuster more than any other in our history -- almost 400 times to kill, stifle or obstruct legislation.

The effect was best described by political activist Ezra Klein in a Washington Post blog:

"... the filibuster is a constant where it used to be a rarity. Indeed, it shouldn't even be called 'the filibuster': It has nothing to do with talking, or holding the floor. It should be called the 60-vote requirement. It applies to everything now even when the minority does not specifically choose to invoke it. There are no longer, to my knowledge, categories of bills that don't get filibustered because such things are simply not done, though there are bills that the minority chooses not to invoke their 60-vote option on. That's why Harry Reid says things like '60 votes are required for just about everything' "

And that is why I am pessimistic about getting an effective legislative process in the future and breaking the gridlock that has hampered us in the past. Indeed, recently Mitch McConnell, minority leader of the Senate, put his colleagues on notice about changing the 60-vote rule. On Monday, he warned senators to oppose the growing momentum for dramatic reform of the filibuster, saying, "It may be the most important thing you ever do." He added: "The American people want less partisanship in this town, but everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse."

"Worse"? How could having a legitimate 51-vote majority make matters worse in getting work accomplished in our legislative bodies? Moreover, the rules changes Reid is suggesting are even more modest.

At any rate, "changing the rules" is an oxymoron, because it requires a two-thirds vote (67) to end the current filibuster process. There are some arcane procedural rules (sometimes called the "nuclear option") that possibly could effect change with just 51 votes, and that is what most scares McConnell and is the reason for his "warning." However, it is an option majority leader Reid might be reluctant to use.

Given the facts above -- the almost constant current use of the Senate filibuster ... the continuing requirement to have 60 votes to pass legislation ... the firm stand McConnell has taken against even modest filibuster reform (unless he is merely posturing) ... and the lingering Republican anger over the results of the election -- all we can expect going forward is, to use McConnell's own words: "the fighting, the bitterness and the gridlock."

* * *

Myles Spicer is a retired ad agency owner.

| Back to top

more from Opinion »

Home | Latest news | Sports | Local | Business | Politics | Opinion | Entertainment | Lifestyle | Nation | World | Weather | Daily Deals | Obituaries | Homes | Rentals | Jobs | Movie Finder
| Back to top | | News apps | Help | Manage Subscription | User Check In