"Old Bulls" for New Rules

January 7, 2013

Crossposted at the Hill's Congress blog.

With Senators Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley, who were first elected in 2008, leading this year’s charge for Senate Rules changes, both supporters and opponents of filibuster reform depict the effort as a young man’s game. Senator Mitch McConnell dismissed the initiative as the machinations of a “cohort of short-sighted Senate sophomores.” Journalist George Packer, a reform proponent, describes Senator Carl Levin and other filibuster defenders as “Catos [who] see themselves as steady hands trying to keep the hallowed old institution from being changed out of recognition by young barbarians like Merkley, Warren, and Tom Udall.”

Although Udall and Merkley are the public faces of filibuster reform this year, and while many of the staunchest defenders of the status quo have served long tenures, long-serving members are also on the frontlines advocating reform.

Senator Tom Harkin, first elected in 1984, has crusaded against the filibuster for years. Unlike his more junior allies, who wish to preserve the filibuster while limiting its abuse, Harkin’s preferred course is to ensure that all legislation eventually receives an up-or-down vote. In 1995, when Republicans controlled 52 seats, Harkin, a Democrat, first offered a resolution that would gradually reduce the number of votes required for cloture — the mechanism to end a filibuster — to 50 votes. Since then, Harkin has re-introduced the proposal several times and also supports efforts to modify the filibuster to reduce obstruction. Senator Barbara Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in Senate history (first elected in 1986), has repeatedly co-sponsored Harkin’s proposal.

Senator Frank Lautenberg, who has served since 1982 with a brief two year hiatus, is also a major proponent of filibuster reform. Like Merkley, Lautenberg believes that filibustering senators should hold the floor and actually debate so that the public can see who is preventing a vote. In each of the past three Congresses, Lautenberg has offered his own version of a “talking filibuster” to compel debate, which he calls the “Mr. Smith Bill,” honoring the Frank Capra movie in which Jimmy Stewart engages in a heroic filibuster.

And respected former Senators Jack Danforth, a Republican, and Dan Boren, a Democrat, both recognize that the modern filibuster is not in line with the Senate’s tradition as a deliberative body. “Members of the Senate are not courageously holding the floor, standing proudly as the last bulwark against a tyrannical majority,” they wrote in a recent op-ed. “Instead, senators merely send an email indicating that they are engaging in a filibuster — a process that is as silent as the click of a mouse.” Both support the “talking filibuster” so that the “Senate [can] be the Senate again.”

There are plenty of good reasons for considered debate over how to ensure deliberative but functional democracy. But filibuster reform enjoys the support of both Senate veterans, who have witnessed the Senate’s precipitous drop in productivity, as well as frustrated new members. Skeptical senators cannot simply dismiss reform as the preoccupation of inexperienced members. Rather, they should join with their colleagues in a meaningful conversation about how to restore the Senate as a chamber where substantive decision-making can once again occur. 

Photo by thisisbossi.