By Jason Grumet President Barack Obama declared in a recent interview that he supported “the elimination of the routine use of the filibuster,” and went on to assert that “the filibuster in this modern age probably just torques it too far in the direction of a majority party not being able to govern effectively and move forward its platform.” The comments were surprising, given his own party is presently using the filibuster to block legislation that would undo the president’s own executive actions on immigration.
Shortly thereafter, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, took to the microphones to contradict calls to eliminate the filibuster by several conservative House allies who are frustrated by the Senate’s inability to join their chamber in blocking the president’s executive actions on immigration. “I think the Senate rules wisely protect the minority,” Cruz said, according to news accounts. “The answer is not to change the Senate rules. The answer is for Senate Democrats not to be obstructionist.” Is a Senate filibuster a malicious barrier to legislative progress or an essential tool to ensure all voices are heard in formulating public policy? The answer is both — though legislators’ views are usually shaped by whether they find themselves in the majority or the minority.
Obama and Cruz are both right in opposing calls to eliminate the filibuster altogether. Though these may be cathartic, they would not prove effective. The Senate is a house of glass built on a pile of stones, and the filibuster is just one stone. There are numerous other procedural opportunities for an aggrieved minority party to thwart the majority agenda. We don’t need lawmakers to stop filibustering; we need them to begin collaborating. Simply taking away an enemy’s weapons rarely leads to lasting peace.
The president did not spell out what he meant by the key phrase “elimination of the routine use” of the filibuster and Cruz did not define how his Democratic colleagues should cease being “obstructionist,” but there are several ideas that are commonly proposed when it comes to preserving a constructive role for the filibuster. One approach is to prevent use of the filibuster on procedural hurdles that must be overcome before a bill can be substantively debated.
The other commonly discussed idea is to require members to conduct a “talking filibuster.” The image of a filibuster is often a senator standing in the well of the Senate, like Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and talking nonstop to literally prevent the legislation from advancing. In recent years, the prevalence of filibusters rendered these heroics too inconvenient and time consuming, resulting in a sanitized process in which parties can block legislation without “holding the floor.” The Senate should make filibusters inconvenient once again. If senators were required to sleep on cots waiting for a colleague to finally run out of steam, the use of this procedural tool would surely diminish. It is worth noting that in 2013, Cruz held the floor for several hours expressing his opposition to the Affordable Care Act. While technically not a filibuster, the senator’s remarks included a dramatic bedtime reading of "Green Eggs and Ham" to his young children who were apparently up watching C-SPAN.
The resolution of the current battle on the legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the contentious immigration provisions, could have a lasting effect on congressional productivity. Despite harsh differences, the 114th Congress is actually off to a pretty good start. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is largely making good on his commitment to restore the Senate’s deliberative process and allow Democrats to bring forth amendments even if it requires lawmakers to spend more time in Washington and forces his members to take the occasional “tough vote.” In the first month in session, the Senate debated and voted on far more amendments than were considered in all of 2014. The president’s decision to seek an Authorization for the Use of Military Force will spark an intense debate and stray outside the lines of tribal party orthodoxy by allowing members to speak their minds and vote their conscience. Taken together, these could be green shoots of democracy starting to peek through the past season of barren legislative accomplishments.
If Obama and Cruz can take a stand on the filibuster that defies the immediate interests of their respective parties, cautious optimism for a more productive congress is not out of order.
Jason Grumet is the author of the recently released book, "City of Rivals: Restoring the Glorious Mess of American Democracy" and President of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank. Want More Stories Like This? Subscribe to our Thought Leaders Newsletter. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.