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Filibuster Reform

27 Dec 2009
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

Below is a comment I posted at The Politico the other day. Considering that reforming the filibuster will make reforming health care look like a piece of cake, radical reform is out of the question. I tried to come up with an idea that both Republicans and Democrats might support. As Republican prospects for gains in Congress improve, they may, just possibly, be smart enough to recognize that reforming the filibuster is in their interest as well.

Mend, Don’t End, the Filibuster

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to reform the filibuster without killing it. One idea I’d like to float is this. For every bill coming before the Senate there would be an automatic limit on debate of 50 hours (or whatever). By unanimous consent or the vote of 40 senators another 10 (or whatever) hours could be added and this could be done indefinitely. While at first glance it may appear that this is no different from requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster, I think it changes the dynamics significantly. The burden is shifted from those that want to end a filibuster to those that want to continue one. I think it would significantly reduce the number of routine filibusters while preserving the rights of the minority.

On the issue of holds, they should simply be abolished. They are indefensible. I also believe that all presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation are entitled to an up-or-down vote within some reasonable time period; say, 90 days.


There is a place for the filibuster

Jay Cost has a very good take on this at Real Clear Politics.

I tend to be somewhat sceptical of process reforms coming from either extreme, paricularly in the current environment.

Filibuster and democracy

The filibuster is just an extreme example of how the US Constitution is slanted to give power to people who live in rural and small town environments. It was set up in the 18th century and it is archaic and absurd in the 21st.

The ten most populous states have a combined population of about 164,000,000. The ten least populous states have a population of 8.8 million. Each group of states gets 20 senators, which gives each resident of the rural states the equivalent of 18 votes to the urban states' resident's one. Such an arrangement would never have been enacted literally; but it exists by accident. Such a system is not even democractic. When you add the filibuster, it gets even more extreme, as Senators representing 10 or 15% of the population can control the government.

We would never give such immense power to a small elite based on wealth, birth, religion, or party membership. Why do we do it based on population density? In the early days of the USA, many people believed that rural people were inherently more moral than urban people. This was ridiculous then and still is now.

The best solution would be do eliminate the Senate or at least change it to being elected based on population (which was the original plan in the constitutional convention of 1787).

But of course, the politicians currently in power have no interest in changing anything, so this will not happen. The USA will continue living in the 18th century, pretending that we are a nation of small farmers, mainly white Protestants, when in fact, we are an urban, industrial, and multi-racial society.

As to the filibuster, I

As to the filibuster, I simply don't agree. That's probably because I think the greatest service that Congress could do for our country is to take a 9-month vacation every year.

People who want to end the filibuster want Congress to be more efficient...they want it to do more. I want Congress to do less. I'm perfectly happy with inefficiency because the only thing that Congress does is spend money. The less time they have to think of new things to spend it on the better.

(Yes I realize they also pass important resolutions in appreciation of the latest sports team to win a title and other important matters. I'd assert, we could probably make do with fewer of those as well).


But this is simply a denial of democracy. No matter how elections turn out, you believe that the results should be rigged to ensure that your policy preferences are enforced. Old-fashioned Marxists believed that the Communist party was the "vanguard of the proletariat" and, since they embodied the forces of history, they did not have to observe any moral rules. American conservatives claim a similar exemption from normal political rules, without, so far, a similar dependence on violence and state power.

Actually, conservatives would do very well if the liberals got to do everything they claim they want to do. The inevitable tax increases would alienate many voters who now support them; would Warren Buffet and Bill Gates be as friendly to Democrats if those politicians raised their taxes substantially?

Democracy is the best governmental approach yet invented. Subverting it in the interests of some policy outcome,

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