South Carolina’s increasingly influential Republican senator, Jim DeMint, provided an insight into the state of the Senate by deciding he might have more political influence by heading a prominent conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. To see why, one need look no further than a bizarre performance by Republican leader Mitch McConnell. Seeking to embarrass Democrats, he introduced President Barack Obama’s plan to strengthen the president’s hand in setting the legal debt ceiling, then blocked his own proposal by invoking the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes when Democrats rounded up a majority for it.
Shenanigans like that have turned the “world’s greatest deliberative body” into a legislative joke, often unable to act, and a primary contributor to Washington’s pervasive gridlock. Early next year, several mostly junior Democrats hope to curb some of the worst abuses, like requiring 60 votes to begin debating a bill. Despite likely resistance from most Republicans, Vice President Joe Biden and the 55 members of the Democratic caucus hope to act by upholding the ruling of prior Senate presidents that 51 members can change the rules. But the GOP may respond with a filibuster to block the changes, potentially tying up the Senate for weeks and making it look even worse, if possible.
The irony is that Democrats want to moderate GOP use of filibusters and Republicans are resisting. A few years ago, Republicans were denouncing Democratic filibusters, when the GOP held the White House and Senate as Democrats do now. Both sides regularly invoke history (though the filibuster dates only to 1917) and the Constitution (which says nothing about unlimited Senate debate). But in 2003, two Georgia senators, one from each party, told the truth: “The filibuster has nothing to do with protecting minority rights,” Republican Saxby Chambliss said in a speech mainly quoting Democratic colleague Zell Miller. “The filibuster has everything to do with personal political power. It’s about Alpha dogs defending their turf in that great big kennel under the dome.”
Until the early 1970s, filibusters mainly occurred on great national issues, like civil rights, and the number of cloture petitions to limit debate never reached double digits in any two-year session. But since 2007, the total has surpassed 100 per session on measures both weighty and mundane.
Unfortunately, leaders of both parties have facilitated the obstructionists. Now, they need only threaten a filibuster, rather than speak endlessly to block action like Southern senators decrying civil rights bills in the 1950s and 1960s or James Stewart’s fictional Jefferson Smith in the classic movie Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Indeed, one proposed reform would require senators mounting a filibuster to actually hold the floor, meaning they’d have to sustain their effort or allow a vote.
Others would limit filibusters to the bills themselves, require the filibusterers to produce 41 votes, rather than forcing the majority to muster 60, and streamline consideration of nominations. Almost any change would be an improvement. But these fights often have unintended consequences. When a bipartisan group of senators lowered the requirement for limiting Senate debate to 60 in 1975, they hoped to control filibusters.
But the opposite happened, thanks to growing partisanship and the propensity of some Senate leaders to seek constant political advantage, rather than deal with national problems. It’s no wonder a Jim DeMint would think he could have greater influence outside the Senate, than inside.