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Reform the Filibuster

Reform the Filibuster

[Editor’s Note: Today’s post is the last in our two-week series on potential congressional reform ideas. Read the recap of all the past reform ideas here and thanks for participating in the conversation. No Labels’ finalized reform agenda will be introduced on December 13 in Washington, D.C. Email us if you’d like to attend the meeting.]

by Dave Walker

On March 5, 1841, the Senate introduced the first filibuster. It involved the firing of people working as printers in the Senate and lasted six days. It was only used after Senate leaders had exhausted other known methods of debate.

What began as a tool of last resort became a common occurrence in the 1970s. Rather than waiting to use it in extreme situations, America’s leaders started abusing the filibuster to shut down conversation. Filibuster use has become so extreme that its sole function now is to obstruct legislation, impeding American progress.

One issue with the filibuster is that lawmakers have found and created loopholes in recent years that make it easier to use.

For example, a silent filibuster is a warning that a bill will be filibustered before it is even brought to the floor for debate. A senator only has to file a little paperwork to prevent unfriendly legislation from reaching a vote. This is a far cry from the sheer physical duress senators used to face during in-person filibusters: Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) risked mind and bladder to speak for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act and Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” collapses after hours speaking on the floor.

The result of the ease of the filibuster: minority parties that do not require a thoughtful effort to block unfriendly legislation. Conversation is shut down before it even begins. Countless bills have been stuck in procedural limbo because they have lacked the approval of 60 Senators to go through. The sheer difficulty of getting these votes usually forces the Senate to move on to other business.  

Another problem with the filibuster is the secret hold. Originally intended to allow senators time to do further research on a bill or to return from a trip out of D.C. in order to participate in debate, the “secret hold” is now used as a partisan tactic to stall legislation. Senators don’t even have to attach their name to a hold when preventing legislation from moving forward. Elected officials should be on-the-record so the public can hold them accountable for their actions.

The Senate has made an effort to reform the broken filibuster process. In early 2011, the Senate passed a law that was supposed to bar secret holds. Yet our senators would not be deterred -- new laws mean new loopholes. And this law said that a senator’s name would only be published in the “Congressional Record” after two days. That means, if two senators want to block legislation, they can do so anonymously as long as they switch off every two days.

The secret hold practice must be abolished to end loopholes and increase transparency in the legislative process. If lawmakers disagree with an idea, they should be responsible for explaining it to the American people, they shouldn’t be able to hide behind Senate paperwork.

The filibuster was never meant to be used casually. It was never meant to allow a minority to block all legislation in the Senate, and it was certainly never meant to allow senators to anonymously and unilaterally halt the legislative process. Senators must end the silent filibuster and secret hold processes to ensure Americans see and hear what their leaders think and hold them accountable for their actions. It’s time for the Senate to overhaul the filibuster.

What do you think? Please leave a comment below and join the conversation about No Labels’ proposed congressional rules reforms.

Dave Walker has over 30-years of public, private and not-for-profit sector leadership experience. He has received three Presidential appointments with unanimous Senate confirmation from Presidents of both major parties, including his most recent as Comptroller General of the United States (1998-2008).

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