Op-Ed

The Senate Strangles Itself

Sarah A. Binder

Trent Lott, the new majority leader of the Senate, exploded in frustration on the floor this week, complaining that the Democrats were exploiting the rules to block Senate action. That they certainly were, and so were Republicans—holding up bills on everything from nuclear waste to domestic violence. But what did he expect?

To be sure, most Senate leaders endure years, not weeks, of obstructionism before resorting to castigating their colleagues. But Mr. Lott is hardly the first Senate leader to find his party snarled endlessly in filibusters and other arcane rules that empower minorities of any size (including one) to frustrate the majority.

Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, Nelson Aldrich, Henry Cabot Lodge—these and other Senate giants have fought unsuccessfully to make it easier for a majority to stem debate. As the current minority leader, Tom Daschle, noted this week, Mr. Lott’s harangue quoted nearly verbatim from words spoken by George J. Mitchell two years ago, when he led the Senate’s Democratic majority.

Regardless of one’s views on the issues, preventing votes on bills and nominations is no way for an advanced democracy to govern itself. But somehow that noble principle is seldom translated into reform. As recently as last year, Mr. Lott and every other Republican senator joined a majority of Democrats to defeat a plan to reduce the number of votes needed to cut off debate.

Opponents of reform argue that the filibuster is an indelible part of Senate tradition, a reflection of the intent of the Constitution’s framers. No measures favored by a popular majority have ever been killed by a filibuster, it is claimed; the requirement that a supermajority of 60 senators vote to cut off debate is necessary to insure moderate, bipartisan compromise. Finally, we were told, the recent rise of partisan filibustering is only an aberration in an otherwise noble tradition; senators have historically reserved the filibuster for the most momentous national issues.

But these claims are mostly myth.The founders made no effort to provide for the filibuster in designing the Senate: they knew full well what havoc had been caused in the Continental Congress by giving a minority of the states the power to block a majority.

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Filibusters have indeed killed measures that enjoyed broad support, from civil rights and housing legislation to lobbying reform. Nor does the 60-vote requirement guarantee that bills that are adopted will be any less extreme: the 60th senator does not necessarily reflect public opinion any better than the 51st.

More than 30 times in recent decades, majorities have written laws that severely cramp the minority’s right to filibuster. The filibuster is banned on important budget and trade matters, as well as on much less visible international and domestic legislation. Senators from both parties have been willing to give up their right to debate endlessly when it seems to serve immediate and future policy interests.

So why has the filibuster endured? Certainly not because all senators are committed to minority rights and free speech. The rules serve as a foundation of senators’ personal political power—whether they are majority or minority, Republican or Democrat.

But in an era of unprecedented filibustering and related obstructionism, the old ways of doing business (and the dubious constitutional and historical claims made for them) are impairing the Senate’s capacity to meet its modern responsibilities. Mr. Lott and his colleagues need to alter their rules—giving up the supermajority requirement, for example, in exchange for allowing longer debates—so that lengthy deliberation is still possible but so is final action by a determined majority.