Senator Tom Harkin Urges End to "Tyranny of the Minority"

June 17, 2010

At the end of Monday’s night’s third Living Constitution Lecture, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), urged all 200 attendees to stand up at their next city council or school board meeting and insist that the minority view prevail over the wishes of the majority. And in this way, he reasoned, it might become clear to more Americans how the Senate's filibuster rule creates dysfunction and unintended consequences.

“…[T]he harsh reality today is that, in critical areas of public policy, our Congress is simply unable to respond effectively to the challenges that confront the United States today. Consider the major issues that the Senate has tried and failed to address: climate change and energy policy, labor law reform, and immigration reform, to name just a few,” he said. The Senate’s filibuster rules, which allow a single senator to hold up most types of legislation indefinitely in the absence of 60 votes to end debate, are “an unprecedented abuse of Senate rules [that] has simply overwhelmed the legislative process.” Both parties have been guilty of abusing Senate rules to hold up the nation’s business in recent years to an unprecedented extent.

Many Americans might be amused at the strange filibuster rule of the Senate, which brings to mind Jimmy Stewart’s comic and touching all-night filibuster in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. But the year that movie was made, 1939, there were zero filibusters in the Senate. Over the 52 year period from 1917 to 1969, there were fewer than 50 filibusters, less than one per year. “In contrast,” said the Senator, “during the last Congress, 2007-2008, the majority was obliged to file a record 139 motions to end filibusters. Already in this Congress, since January 2009, there have been 98 motions to end filibusters.”

Senator Harkin has been a voice for reform of the filibuster rule since 1995, when he was a member of the minority party and thus had the most to lose from filibuster reform. He proposes gradually reducing the number of votes required to close debate (“cloture”) from 60 to a simple majority over a period not to exceed eight days, which would leave plenty of time for the minority to debate, win over public opinion, or, as a last resort, propose soothing and compromising amendments. “It is about the Senate as an institution operating more fairly, effectively and democratically,” he noted.

The Living Constitution Lecture is meant to give a platform to a public official who has considered the Constitution’s great principles in the course of his or her work. Here, the Senator noted, though the Constitution has a number of brakes on the principle of simple majority rule (the structure of the Senate being the most obvious), the Constitution was framed to correct “glaring defects in the Articles of Confederation –which required a two-thirds supermajority to pass any law, and unanimous consent of all states to make any amendment…It is not surprising that the Founders expressly rejected the idea that more than a majority would be needed for most decisions.”