Congress: Time to Stop Obstructing and Start Governing


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on No Labels, our new policy partner which seeks to promote civil dialogue and moderate politics across the nation.

As the Senate rumbled back to life this Tuesday, it knocked out two quick votes in near unanimity, voting 96-0 to confirm a federal judge and 93-5 to preemptively invoke cloture on the Patent Bill that cleared the House in June.

In an age of blistering partisanship, it is almost shocking to hear that the Senate did something without resorting to threats of a second Civil War.

It is a telling and terrifying sign that agreement among our political leadership comes as a surprise to most Americans. In an age where millions of Americans are out of work one would hope that our elected leaders could come together and fundamentally agree that serious work needs to be done. Instead, any political discussion quickly degenerates into partisan bickering and blatant political obstructionism that, while potentially playing well with fringe constituencies, prevents any substantive work from getting done.

At the heart of the systemic obstructionism within the Senate is the filibuster. Filibuster is a term that carries a lot of emotional baggage but is seldom understood in its contextual entirety by anyone but the most die-hard legislative procedure nerds. The filibuster as we know it came to be in 1917 after a group of anti-war Senators killed a bill seeking to arm merchant vessels against German submarines. In response, the Wilson-backed Senate majority passed a rule allowing for the invocation of cloture, an end to the potential for unlimited debate that is considered tradition in the Senate.

What’s often missed in discussion of the filibuster is that the power of the filibuster no longer resides in its ability to kill any one particular bill. The modern power of the filibuster is contained in its ability as a threat that can prevent any Congressional business from occurring, due to systemic abuse of the rule in an effort to grind all business to a complete halt. Allow me to illustrate how this happens.

Before a bill can reach the Senate floor for discussion, the Senate must vote on whether to allow it to get there. This is the first opportunity for the opposition party to filibuster. Let’s assume they choose to do so. In order to invoke cloture, 16 Senators must first sign a petition for cloture and file it with the Senate clerk. This petition is then set aside for one full day in which the Senate is sitting (meaning if it was filed on Friday, it is ignored until Tuesday, assuming the Senate did not convene over the weekend).

On the second calendar day, after the Senate has been sitting for an hour, the cloture motion has “matured” and is brought to the floor for a vote. Assuming that those seeking to invoke cloture can muster the 60 votes needed, cloture is invoked. However, that does not immediately end debate. After the cloture vote passes, up to 30 more hours of debate may occur.

The kicker? All of the above procedure is still the filibuster debate on the motion to bring the bill to the floor for debate. This entire procedure is repeatable, start to finish, for ending debate on the bill itself and bringing it to a vote. What this means is that every bill can potentially eat four full days, effectively a full week, of Senate time before reaching an up-down passage vote.

This means that every one of hundreds of judicial nominations, political appointments, and procedural legislation can be made to take a full week of Senate time, leaving little time for addressing the massive funding re-authorization acts that keep the Federal government running, not to mention the hundreds of bills that clear the House every Congress.

Is your head spinning yet?

The Senate is an institution that was built on the fundamental idea of compromise. It simply cannot function if a party collectively refuses to allow any business to happen for no other reason than the scoring of political points by making the other side look bad. Both the 110th and 111th Congress saw a record-breaking number of filibusters, at 112 and 109, respectively. For perspective, that’s more than double the amount of filibusters of the 100th Congress, a little more than two decades ago.

With “compromise” seen as an ugly word by the vocal minorities of both parties, hope is not high for the 112th Congress to change this newly destructive status quo. Moreover, last night’s Republican presidential debate saw the candidates re-affirm their opposition to any budget deal that had revenue increases, recommitting to the unbelievable admission that they would refuse a deal that offered $10 in spending cuts for every one dollar in tax increases.

Numerous suggestions for reform have been put forward, from limiting filibusters to only one per bill to doing away with the practice altogether. While all of these proposed solutions would fix the immediate problem of the filibuster, they would do nothing to address the caustic atmosphere currently dominating our political discourse.

Filibuster abuse and obstructionism in general could be ended simply by having the leadership of both parties come together and state that they will not stand for obstructionism in the name of naked politics anymore. This kind of leadership would clamp down on the raucous members throwing political bombs from either side of the aisle and force the Senators to do the job they were elected to do, to govern responsibly. Furthermore, this sort of unified leadership and call for civility would go a long way towards de-escalating the rhetoric and vitriol pouring out of Congress and encourage Americans to regain trust in their elected officials and institutions.

Slash and burn political theater may be good for short term gains in election season, but it poisons the soul of democratic governance. A government cannot function if the only goal of the minority party is to consistently do their utmost to prevent government from functioning. We as voters must demand civility and pragmatism from our leaders while simultaneously scorning and denouncing those that would seek to lead with political daggers rather than pragmatic compromise. Only the voice of the people will force the government to change their ways and it is high time we made our voices heard.

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