It’s (still) time to rein in the filibuster

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (right) walked to his office on Tuesday.
Andrew Harnik/Associated Press
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (right) walked to his office on Tuesday.

LET’S SUPPOSE for a minute that both sides of the increasingly polarized political divide really wanted to make this country’s dysfunctional government start to work again.

Here’s one thing they should do: dramatically reduce the use of the filibuster. No, not eliminate it entirely; that probably can’t be done. But agree that, going forward, it would be employed only sparingly, and not as a regular part of Senate debate.

Although even some senators are apparently confused about this, the filibuster wasn’t part of the original design of the Senate. It came about as an accident, the result of a sloppy attempt to streamline that body’s rules back during the early 1800s. The prior rule about ending debate were accidentally stricken — and, over time, senators came to understand that they could employ a filibuster to talk an uncongenial bill to death.


Still, the filibuster wasn’t routinely invoked as a must-clear threshold until the very recent era. Its use as an opposition tactic rose significantly during the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. But its everyday application is really an “innovation” of Mitch McConnell’s during his days as minority leader. By having Senate Republicans filibuster almost all important (and some unimportant) legislation, which then required 60 votes to proceed, he was able both to block bills and bog the process down. (McConnell once memorably went to the floor to filibuster . . . one of his own pieces of legislation.) Further, under McConnell, a filibuster wasn’t applied just once to a specific matter, but several times as the issue progressed.

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Overall, it was part of a strategy to deprive Barack Obama of legislative victories. McConnnell employed it realizing that no matter where the fault for inaction actually reposed, frustrated voters were most likely to blame the president. In this most recent shutdown, Democrats initially took refuge in the same notion, before ending their filibuster and agreeing to fund the government.

Although it clearly works as an instrument of obstruction, the filibuster has led to the monumental idiocy of the government of this great nation lurching from one near or actual shutdown to the next. Eminently solvable differences, often over secondary matters, regularly devolve into bouts of partisan brinkmanship.

The resolution of this latest government standoff shows a way forward. The Democrats basically agreed to end their filibuster in exchange for a Republican commitment to allow DACA to come to the floor for debate and an up-or-down vote in the next few weeks.

So essentially what happened here is that both sides lowered their filibuster swords.


That’s a move that should empower the moderates and promote compromise. In that light, it’s hardly a coincidence that it was a group of 20 or so of those types of senators that was most responsible for this resolution.

Now, dialing back on delay, posturing, and obstruction would take a real commitment. It would require a critical mass of senators from both parties making clear they will oppose the use of the filibuster — or “the 60 vote threshold,” as it’s increasingly called — as a regular legislative tactic. And perhaps even requiring filibusters to be stand-and-palaver talkathons rather than today’s virtual events, which require no effort whatsoever to mount. It would mean that each side would have to accept the risk that there are times when they would lose on issues where they could otherwise frustrate the majority.

But it would also likely mean that individual senators with some courage and independence of mind would have more sway in the Senate. And that might mean our government would return to a place where it actually functioned more the way the Founders intended.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.