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Senate must reform filibuster to achieve bipartisan compromise

Senate must reform filibuster to achieve bipartisan compromise
© Greg Nash

Regardless of where you stand on the broad slate of legislative proposals under consideration in the Senate, you have to admit the chamber is not working particularly well. Not only is it rather difficult to pass significant packages, Congress has even struggled to keep the federal government funded and argues over spending bills until the final hour.

Calls to eliminate or reform the legislative filibuster may be new, but the problem has simmered in the Senate for years, so it is time to reform the process. Some lawmakers have declared that the filibuster should remain essentially untouchable, claiming that it promotes necessary legislative compromise and prevents highly divisive legislative plans.

But what are they really trying to protect? The filibuster no longer fosters compromise. It may actually be standing in the way of it. It has become a method for the minority to easily block legislation rather than force the dissenting lawmakers to work with the majority on a compromise. A rule that ensures nothing ever gets done is not worth preserving. So rather than stand by a rule that no longer promotes bipartisan proposals, we should find solutions to tweak the concept of the filibuster.

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The filibuster does have some merits when it keeps a small majority from solely enacting broad legislation with no support from lawmakers on the other side of the aisle, which is why I will not advocate for eliminating it entirely. But the filibuster is not sacred, and it is possible to reform it in a way that more effectively encourages more robust debate.

The Senate can consider inverting the filibuster. In the current framework, 60 votes are needed to end debate and move onto final passage, placing the burden on the majority to whip up support for the bill. Inverting the filibuster would instead place the burdens on the dissenting minority to actively come up with the votes to block it. This would reduce the casual use of the filibuster tool for purely obstructive purposes and spur greater engagement on various individual pieces of legislation.

To encourage debate and active participation, opponents should have to get two fifths of members present and voting to block a bill rather than two fifths of the entire Senate. This would force members to show up for debate and votes on a bill, which is not that common these days. It would also make it a bit harder to block legislation and would prevent members from avoiding tough or unpopular votes. If the minority wants to block a bill, most of its caucus would have to be on the record.

The Senate was once known as the greatest deliberative body, a phrase that no longer describes the chamber. This rule change can prompt the rigorous debate it was once known for. A concerted effort by the leaders of Congress to keep members in Washington five days a week and reduce the number of recesses could also enable important compromise. Asking members to remain in one place and provide more time to consider vital legislation, along with a more open and robust amendment process, can increase the chances that critical reforms are passed.

These kinds of reforms will not instantly make it easier for the majority in the Senate to pass its legislative agenda. It will still allow the minority to block a bill that its caucus deeply opposes. What these reforms would hopefully achieve is more rigorous debate about significant legislation, which is woefully lacking right now. Let the public witness their elected leaders argue for legislative reforms or discuss their opposition to a bill rather than allow a bill to die before it ever hits the floor.

Danielle Brian is executive director at Project on Government Oversight.