In the modern days of the US democracy, one might justly wonder if our government sufficiently addresses the needs of its people. Hovering about a 30% approval rating, Congress is undeniably unpopular and desperately needs to be fixed. However, this fix is less likely to come from a change in perspective, but from a change of a controversial Senate procedure, the filibuster.
Though divided into many faces, both parties similarly antagonize the filibuster, as a havoc on the governing process. The filibuster, briefly, is a complicated Senate procedure, which, by endless debate, can block certain laws to be passed unless a so called cloture is invoked, by a minimum of 60 votes. And keep that number in mind, because that will be the key to this governing riddle.
So How Does a Filibuster Work?
60 votes are all that it takes. Let’s say a Senator introduced a bill on tuition free colleges. Let’s give his or her party a majority; let’s say 52–48. When the Senate measure comes to a vote, it is likely to pass by a single majority, and then heads to the desk of the President. Seems easy right? However, if an opposition party Senator chooses to filibuster, begin an unlimited debate only resolved by a cloture, the measure needs 60 votes. And now having only 52 votes, Party A needs at least 8 votes from party B.
Ok, but what’s the matter? If the governing party has a super-majority (60) they can pass their laws anyway? Well, it may technically be true, but in reality, there is a catch: The last time a Senate party had more than 60 votes was back in 1977; Jimmy Carter was president back then. So, in today’s divided Senate, the chances of passing a bill without bipartisan support is far-fetched.
Are There Ways To Get Around The Filibuster?
Well, the answer is yes but not leisurely. Luckily for Senators, there is a quick Senate procedure, which might not solve the procedural gridlock, but it certainly helps to avoid the filibuster: A budget reconciliation. A budget reconciliation allows the Congress to pass certain budgetary legislations on spending, revenues, the federal debt limit, which only requires a simple majority (51 votes).
However, the reach of budget reconciliation is constrained by numerous rules, most notably the Byrd Rule. The Byrd Rule only allows budget related adjustments, meaning that momentous policy changes are strictly limited. Moreover, the Senate is only authorized to pass one budget reconciliation per fiscal year.
An excellent example of this Senate procedure is the failed efforts of the GOP to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The GOP chose a budget reconciliation to avoid a filibuster by the Democrats. Thus they could pass their version of the healthcare bill. Unfortunately for Republicans, they couldn’t close the gap to surpass 51 votes, as several GOP Senators chose to defect. The reasons for the bill’s failure are subject of debate. However, it is quite clear that the lack of consensus among GOP Senators was surely a key player in the bill’s defeat. Given the Byrd Rule’s limits on the reconciliation’s reach, it should not be ruled out that Senior GOP Senators compelled to produce a bill that binds by the Byrd Rule obstructed a solution which would have yielded the needed support.
Undoubtedly, of course, there was a whole lot of politics involved too. Concerns about Medicaid, Planned Parenthood, and a possible 15–25 million potential uninsureds were also merited consideration when it came to the final vote. Nevertheless, it is still possible that there was an ideal solution waiting for Republicans, just it was not applicable under a budget reconciliation.
What Does Washington Think About The Filibuster?
A rule of thumb with the filibuster is that whoever is in power loathes it, and whoever is in opposition cherishes it. The most recent example of this ambivalent love for the procedure came from President Trump in a tweet-storm, followed by the defeat of the latterly mentioned health care bill. In the President’s words: “The very outdated filibuster rule must go. Budget reconciliation is killing R’s in Senate. Mitch M, go to 51 Votes NOW and WIN. IT’S TIME!” In his “eloquent” words, the President made his stance on the filibuster crystal clear: It’s outdated, and it should go.
Needless to say, when Trump was not in office, he saw the filibuster from a from a different angle. In 2013, when then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went “nuclear,” effectively removing the filibuster from presidential appointments below the Supreme Court level, Trump went after Reid tweeting: “Thomas Jefferson wrote the Senate filibuster rule. Harry Reid & Obama killed it yesterday. Rule was in effect for over 200 years.”
Ironically, it is worth noting that in 2017 when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went “nuclear” on Supreme Court nominees, he received multitudes of praises and applauses from the White House.
The point is, besides Trump’s frequent flip-flops, is that politicians have seasonal feelings about the filibuster.
How Could Washington Fix Its Problems By Changing the Rules of The Filibuster?
The biggest problem with the filibuster is that it blocks the governing process. So what if the Senate agreed on a precise number of times in a fiscal year when the Senate can produce legislations that are not subject to the filibuster?
Maybe the Senate is polarized, but both parties have at least one thing in common: When they are in power, it is almost impossible to govern effectively when they can’t pass a single legislation without bipartisan support. Of course, in an ideal world, DC politicians would come together and produce numerous bipartisan legislation — no matter who is in charge — facilitating the lives of the American people, but in today’s divided politics that is barely the case. If not for their selfish means, at least for the sake of governance, both parties should agree on a limited amount of times when the filibuster is entirely avoidable.
Progress is a slow process in America. If the United States ever wishes to attain a health care system that resembles that of other developed nations or an economy which is not burdened by a far too complicated tax code, Washington has to wield itself the power to adjust to the modern democracy; the days of FDR are far behind us, Congress does not address its constituents problems, regardless of partisan identity.
Let someone be Democrat or Republican, or none of them, the common goal of government is to produce results that enhance the overall well-being of the nation. The Government has to produce bills, and legislations. While it is infuriating for a Democrat to see Republicans passing their initiatives, and vice versa, this is what democracy is about. Ideally, in a democracy, those parties are in power who have the support of the majority of their nation. Though it sounds way too ideal, partisanship needs to be overthrown in the face of the need of the majority. When another political ideology’s policies fail, they can still be changed. After all, the laws of the land are subject to the people who oppose or endorse them. There is no need to panic when the other party is in charge.
It is evident that countries with a more flexible governing system have a greater advantage in carrying out their policy goals. Let it be a border wall or an economy based on renewable energy, the government, if endowed with the will of the majority, should be able to fulfill its citizen’s needs.
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