Archived Story

What’s the big deal about filibuster

Published 12:00am Thursday, January 20, 2011

“The use of the Senate,” wrote James Madison in 1787, “is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch.” George Washington described the Senate to Thomas Jefferson as a saucer to cool legislation. At that time, it was customary to pour coffee into the saucer to allow it to cool, and so Washington explained the Senate would let any legislation that was too contentious to settle producing a better outcome.

To accomplish Washington’s point, the Senate was designed to grant members the power to force greater deliberation. One tool senators use for open-ended debate is the filibuster, allowing a member to argue an issue on the Senate Floor until consensus is reached or 60 of the 100 Senators vote to end the debate. Currently, 60 votes are often required in the Senate to advance legislation, which helps protect members of the minority party and the people they represent.

Now, some Democrats want to change the filibuster to fundamentally alter the role of the Senate and give themselves more power. In the recent elections, Republicans gained six Senate seats, but those seeking to scale back the filibuster are attempting to nullify these results. I oppose limiting this important tool of our democracy.

During the last Congress, the filibuster prevented harmful, wide-ranging legislation from passing. Labor unions vigorously pushed for an end to the secret ballot with a bill known as card check. A cap and trade energy tax would have penalized American energy producers and caused energy prices to rise for families and businesses. At the last minute in December, Democrat leaders in Congress proposed a $1 trillion catch-all spending bill that included $1 billion to fund the President’s health care law. All of these measures were stopped because of the filibuster. If the proposed changes to the filibuster are implemented, the majority could force reckless bills through, causing real and serious consequences for all Americans.

Opponents of the filibuster decry the lack of action on the Senate floor in recent years. But this has primarily been caused by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s routine practice of calling up bills and then immediately shutting down debate. Between 2007 and 2010, Sen. Reid cut off debate on legislation 44 times, a total greater than the last six majority leaders combined. This abuse of procedural tactics stifles discussion and prevents amendments from being offered. He also bypassed the committee process 43 times, a record according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.

This heavy-handed approach leads to more partisan legislation. To answer the gridlock in the Senate, full debate and amendments should be allowed. Instead of operating like the House, where a simple majority is needed, the Senate should preserve the 60-vote hurdle. This forces members of both parties to work together to develop bipartisan, well thought-out solutions to the problems we face.

Elections have consequences, and one of America’s great contributions to the world is the demonstration of peaceful transitions of power.

The Senate is a unique and chiefly American institution, and the filibuster, an essential tool for reaching consensus, should not be limited to hand one party more power.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker is a Republican representing Mississippi in the U.S. Senate.