Curtailing the Tyranny of the Senate Minority

The title of this post is a bit on the dramatic side, but not inappropriately so, me thinks, given these all too interesting times. Good article by William Greider in The Nation on the Senate’s cloture rule, arguing for the necessity of changing it. Excerpts below. Emphasis added. Click here for the whole article.

If the Democratic Party intends to get serious about governing, it can start by disabling the Republican filibuster that gives the minority party in the Senate a virtual veto over anything it wants to kill. The chatter in Washington assumes that since Democrats failed to gain a sixty-seat majority, there’s nothing they can do. But that’s not true. Democrats can change the rules and remove a malignant obstacle from the path of our new president. Given the emergency conditions facing the nation, why should Mitch McConnell and his right-wing colleagues get to decide what the Senate may vote on? …

The last time the Senate changed the cloture vote threshold to overcome a filibuster was in 1975, when the Democrats reduced it from sixty-seven to sixty votes. This time, the level can reasonably be reduced to fifty-five votes to break the GOP’s stranglehold on major legislation. The argument for reform seems far more compelling now than it did in 1975. The filibuster ostensibly protects minority interests with the right to unlimited debate, but it has been used notoriously to accomplish the opposite. During the 1950s and ’60s, Southern segregationists filibustered to block legislation intended to aid oppressed African-Americans–even a federal law against lynching. Liberals campaigned valiantly for years, without success, to reduce the sixty-seven-vote requirement.

A bit more history:

In 1975 the filibuster issue was revived by post-Watergate Democrats frustrated in their efforts to enact popular reform legislation like campaign finance laws. Senator James Allen of Alabama, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate and a skillful parliamentary player, blocked them with a series of filibusters. Liberals were fed up with his delaying tactics. Senator Walter Mondale pushed a campaign to reduce the threshold from sixty-seven votes to a simple majority of fifty-one. In a parliamentary sleight of hand, the liberals broke Allen’s filibuster by a majority vote, thus evading the sixty-seven-vote rule. (Senate rules say you can’t change the rules without a cloture vote, but the Constitution says the Senate sets its own rules. As a practical matter, that means the majority can prevail whenever it decides to force the issue.) In 1975 the presiding officer during the debate, Vice President Rockefeller, first ruled with the liberals on a motion to declare Senator Allen out of order. When Allen appealed the “ruling of the chair” to the full Senate, the majority voted him down. Nervous Senate leaders, aware they were losing the precedent, offered a compromise. Henceforth, the cloture rule would require only sixty votes to stop a filibuster. …

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One Comment to “Curtailing the Tyranny of the Senate Minority”

  1. I have noticed that some bloggers are questioning whether we should continue to have a Senate, partly because of the filibuster. I just wrote a post on the U.S. Senate itself. I argue that it was designed with discordant goals and that it should be more like the European Council in the EU in representing State governments. Here is the link (in case you are interested): http://euandus3.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/the-u-s-senate-what-is-it-really/

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