With the US Senate race now in full gear, it’s time to explore which candidate, Republican Senator Scott Brown or Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, is more intent on making the Senate work.
Today’s topic: the filibuster. The Senate is widely considered the government’s broken branch, and one big reason is the filibuster, whose routine use means it takes 60 votes for the Senate to get anything controversial done. As political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein write in “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” their new book about political polarization and paralysis: “No longer is it just a tool of last resort, used only in rare cases when a minority with a strong belief on an issue of major importance attempts to bring the process to a screeching halt to focus public attention on its grievances . . . It is fair to say that this pervasive use of the filibuster has never before happened in the history of the Senate.”
I recently asked the Brown and Warren camps what each candidate would do to rein in the filibuster and requested interviews with both.
“A filibuster should be an extraordinary step, not a routine one,” Warren said in a phone interview. The biggest remedy she backs is requiring filibusterers to stand and deliver.
“If a senator wants to filibuster, that is OK, but that senator should be required to step out onto the Senate floor and actually stand up and talk every single time, with the whole country watching on C-SPAN,” she said.
Under that change, part of a filibuster reform package offered by Democratic Senators Tom Udall, Tom Harkin, and Jeff Merkley that Warren supports, when the filibusterers no longer have anyone who wants to speak, the filibuster would automatically end. That reform likely wouldn’t affect matters where the minority party was united in adamant opposition and thus could marshal many speakers. But it would give Senate leaders greater ability to end filibusters that don’t rise to that level. That would also apply to judicial nominees, an area where Democrats were prone to filibuster abuse during the presidency of George W. Bush.
The other reforms Warren supports would eliminate filibusters on motions to proceed — thereby removing one of several delaying opportunities — and guarantee the minority party the right to offer amendments, as long as they were germane and timely. The rules reform package also called for ending “secret holds,” under which a senator could anonymously block legislation or nominees; that change was made. Warren says she would support those reforms regardless of which party controls the Senate next year.
Brown did not consent to an interview. By e-mail, spokeswoman Marcie Kinzel said that “Senator Brown respects the rules of the Senate but he also believes there is too much gridlock in Congress, and that is why he is proud to have the second-most bipartisan voting record in the Senate.” Brown, she added, “has a proven record of crossing party lines to end filibusters and move the process along.”
Last year, however, Brown voted against the same basic filibuster reforms Warren supports, though as Kinzel noted, he joined 91 other senators in voting to end secret holds.
Kinzel also said that Brown “has broken a filibuster on important close votes on multiple occasions,” citing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform legislation, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a jobs bill pushed by Majority Leader Harry Reid, and recent Postal Service reform legislation. Of those, however, Brown could be considered the crucial vote only on the Dodd-Frank legislation, which cleared the 60-senator cloture threshold with no votes to spare. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” had the necessary 60 votes before he signed on, as did the jobs bill. Postal reform, meanwhile, had a wide margin. Still, Brown deserves substantial anti-filibuster credit on the first three.
Conclusion time: In a polarized era, Brown deserves credit for his occasional willingness to break with his party and help end filibusters. That said, given his vote against the filibuster reform package, there’s little reason to think his leadership on the issue would extend beyond his periodic personal example.
Warren vows that she would vote for filibuster reform. And that’s why it’s fair to say she’d play a more substantial and systemic role when it comes to fixing the broken Senate.