In an interview on January 11, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) told a Nevada television station that the Senate would likely not take the radical step of overturning decades of Senate precedent to reinstate the “standing” or “talking” filibuster, which requires Senate members to be physically present to object to lawmaking. Preserving the filibuster, especially as it has evolved in recent decades, best serves the public interest, the collegiality of the Senate, its lawmaking function, and both political parties.
Eliminating or radically changing the filibuster has been proposed by some activists and others with limited patience for the democratic process as a way to steamroll moderate Democrats and Republicans who seek consensus legislation and who might exercise independent judgment on candidates for federal court judgeships or cabinet positions. In fact, a telecommunications union is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising this week to lobby the Senate to reinstate the standing filibuster. However, this would have negative consequences for Senate Democrats—and Harry Reid knows it.
A decades-old Senate compromise allows the Senate Majority Leader, with unanimous consent or with the consent of the Minority Leader, to have more than one bill pending on the floor as unfinished business. In practice, this means that rather than physically occupying the Senate floor and filibustering with long speeches, a Senator can invoke the filibuster, delay the particular bill he questions, and the Senate can continue with other business.
Right now, the filibuster does not delay the ordinary functioning of the Senate; if Senate Democrats invoke the “standing filibuster” change activists are seeking, however, the filibustering Senator would not give unanimous consent and the business of the Senate would come to a grinding halt: only one bill at a time.
Consequently, there is no reason to believe that requiring a standing filibuster would help Democrats now in power or Republicans when they are in control. Throughout the 1950s, Democrat Senators filibustered to delay numerous laws designed to protect African-Americans. A standing filibuster rule didn’t stop then-Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond (SC) from physically occupying the Senate floor and delivering the longest speech in Senate history that lasted 24 hours and 18 minutes.
Knowing that eliminating the standing filibuster wouldn’t fix this problem, the 85th Congress seriously debated eliminating the filibuster entirely, a proposal endorsed by then-Vice President Richard Nixon. This proposal was strongly opposed by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson (D–TX), who in 1957 argued that it would be unthinkable to allow a majority to “abandon a rule that was designed specifically to protect minorities.” One day, Senator Johnson noted, the impatient majority might “be protect[ed]…by the rules of the Senate which are denounced today.”
In the end, cooler heads prevailed, and the Senate compromised, developing the two-track system that is currently still in place. Today, any serious observer knows that reinstating the standing filibuster is just a dress rehearsal for eliminating the filibuster entirely, a radical step that even the most progressive Democratic Senators wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, seriously propose. Let’s hope that Majority Leader Reid doesn’t change course again in the next few days. But for now, it seems that the more radical proposals have been put to rest.