Reviving the Senate with Filibuster Reform

CAP Experts Push for Congressional Change

CAP experts discuss the Senate’s current state of paralysis and how filibuster reform can get the legislative process working again.


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Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) warned at a joint Center for American Progress Action Fund and Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies event last Friday that the Senate must be a “functional legislative body” or else it will become “a graveyard of good ideas.” Udall was joined on a panel by Scott Lilly, Senior Fellow at CAP Action, and Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. James Thurber, distinguished professor and director at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, served as moderator. The event focused on the modern Senate and how its current practices are affecting the quality of government.

Thurber argued that “There have been destructive changes beyond the filibuster in the Senate that have undermined the normal legislative process and made the functions of Congress—lawmaking, oversight, representation, deliberation, and education—difficult to impossible to achieve.”

He said these changes, which have morphed into trends, have “accelerated in the last two decades.” They include, among other things, increasing use of filibusters, amendments, and holds to clog the legislative works; delays in confirming executive branch officials; lack of debate in the Senate; breakdown of the budget process; excessive use of earmarks and riders added to appropriation and tax bills often as a crutch to act on significant policy issues; and withholding appropriations to fully fund authorization bills.

According to Thurber, these trends “led to disrespect for Congress, its processes, and the results of its lawmaking that eats that the very core of our democracy.”

Mann said Senate comity used to be “the oil that kept things going,” but now there’s no bipartisan trust or bond. The “changing character of the party system in recent decades” has reduced the number of moderates in the Senate and led to a “promiscuous use of holds,” he added.

But while “toxic partisanship…poisoned the system,” the filibuster in particular has become the “weapon of partisan warfare,” according to Udall. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that the majority of the public wants to get rid of the filibuster, which should come as no surprise considering this Congress has filibustered 112 times—more than ever before.

A proposed change to the filibuster rule can be filibustered, but change is possible with “the spirit of solutions,” Lilly said. Senator Udall advocated for using the option found in Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution. It states that “each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings” and also states that a “Majority of each [House] shall constitute a Quorum to do Business.”

In other words, the framers intended the Senate and House to adopt new rules by a simple majority vote as the need arose. Rule XXII, the filibuster rule, was last changed in 1975, meaning that only three sitting senators ever voted on the rule that has essentially prevented the Senate from passing meaningful legislation.

Lilly also proposed limiting debate to 16 hours as a way to ensure the deliberate and timely consideration of all appropriation measures. Debate on a single amendment could be limited to one hour. This reform would actually give senators more input in appropriation matters than they do presently.

Lilly offered similar steps to unclog the confirmation process: Committees should be discharged of further consideration of a nominee after two months unless the committee formally votes for further delay. Once a nominee moves through the committee process, consideration of confirmation should be in order without unanimous consent after 30 days.

Udall insisted that filibuster reform is necessary regardless of which party is the majority when “one senator is able to stop the entire show” without even stepping onto the floor. Americans can’t and shouldn’t have to wait for their elected leaders to do their jobs, and senators “need to be willing to give up a little for the good of all,” he said.

“The time has come to address rules reform again,” Udall continued. The Senate is currently bound by rules they’ve “acquiesced to,” but at the start of the next Congress Udall will offer a motion to use the constitutional option to reform all of Rule XXII—which governs the procedure of Senate motions—and modify the filibuster to respect minority voices while giving the American public the functioning government they want.

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