Narrowing the Rights of the Minority
Brian Darling /
“Filibuster reform” is the new cause of the left. Senator Mark Udall (D–CO) has drafted up a rules change that would chip away at minority rights in the Senate by severely limiting the filibuster. This idea would narrow transparency, limit opportunities to offer amendments, and limit debate in the Senate for Members of the minority party.
The filibuster is the Senate rule contained in Rule 22 of the Senate’s standing rules that forces 60 out of 100 Senators to vote to end debate on legislation or a nominee. These rules can be changed only with a two-thirds vote of Members.
The Udall idea is born from the argument that the filibuster is to blame for broken down government, when the blame should lie with Members of both parties unwilling to tackle important issues.
Rule 22 is the most powerful tool for the minority party to leverage participation in the legislative process. If Udall’s idea becomes part of the Senate’s rules, the Senate would become a smaller version of the House, where Members of the minority party have little right to do anything other than vote. Chipping away at the filibuster rule would chip away at the Senate tradition of unlimited debate and an open amendment process.
Many on the left blame the filibuster for every failure of the Obama Administration. Can’t pass tax cuts? Blame the filibuster rule. No public option in Obamacare? Blame Senators who pledged to filibuster. Want bigger government with little brakes to slow that growth? Eliminate or curtail the filibuster. President Obama and the party in power are facing devastating defeat this fall on Election Day not because of the filibuster in the Senate but because of failed leadership. The filibuster has become the straw man crutch of the left.
In reality, the filibuster protected the rights of Democrats in 2005 when they wanted to slow the confirmation of President Bush’s judicial nominees, and it proved valuable for Republicans to force extended debate on Obamacare. The filibuster grants power to the minority party and has protected the American people from overreach from Washington.
Udall said of his proposal to the Denver Post, “I’m frustrated with the capacity of just one Senator to bring the people’s business to a grinding halt. Both parties bear responsibility for the problems.”
Udall is misstating the problem. Signature items of the Obama Administration have been signed into law notwithstanding the filibuster, including the $862 billion stimulus, Obamacare, and Wall Street reform. No single Member had the power to block those initiatives. No serious attempt was made by House and Senate leadership to consider immigration reform and extension of tax cuts. To blame the filibuster for the failings of this Administration is misplaced and not borne out by facts.
Udall and American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein have teamed up to draft a Senate rules change that would have the effect of limiting the rights of Senators. According to the Denver Post, it would allow two hours of debate on a bill. This idea would expedite non-transparent legislation. A Senate Majority Leader could bypass the committee process. No 72 hours for the bill to be on the Senate Web site. No mandate for a Congressional Budget Office score to understand the cost of a bill. No hearings mandated or any opportunity for amendment.
The bill forbids a filibuster after a complete substitute is adopted. The problem with this idea is that it does not protect against a Majority Leader bringing up a bill and filing a complete substitute that radically changes the bill. Again, transparency be damned.
The only idea contained in this proposed rule that would limit the power of the majority would allow germane amendments to be offered when amendments are pending. This would curtail the tactic frequently used by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) of “filling the amendment tree.” This tactic has been used by both Republican and Democratic Senate Majority Leaders over the years to block amendments to bills. For a more detailed explanation of this tactic see “Obstructionism in the Senate.”
But this one marginally good idea does not balance out the bad ideas contained in other sections. On balance, this new proposal would grant the Majority Leader vast new powers and strip minority Members of the right to significantly participate in the process. These ideas are not good for democracy.