It’s Time to End or Reduce the Cloture Clog

Posted July 30, 2007 at 5:04pm

The Senate’s cloture rule defeats democracy. It lets public servants hide and obfuscate behind a parliamentary quirk never intended by the framers of the Constitution. It’s time to end or significantly change the cloture rule, as was last done in 1975, and move to a true democracy so that the House and Senate equally represent the American people.

There are checks and balances, the only ones the Founding Fathers stated and intended: a presidential veto, which Congress can override with two-thirds, the only supermajority specified in the Constitution; the courts; and elections. No one ever foresaw parliamentary sleight of hand as a block of the will of the majority. If Congress wants to restore Americans’ confidence in its work from the current all-time lows, it needs to allow the system to work as common sense, the Constitution and the framers dictate.

During the April-May 2005 “crisis” on judicial nominations, the “Gang of 14,” seven Democratic and seven Republican Senators, agreed to oppose the constitutional or “nuclear” option and to oppose filibusters of judicial nominations except in “extraordinary circumstances.” However, the Senate has failed to cut off debate on other issues 57 times since then, making clear that the system has failed.

Democrats are right to scream Republican “obstructionism,” but Republicans, when they were in the majority, also were right to scream Democratic obstructionism. Both sides use and abuse the rule when they are in the minority to create some supermajority fantasy the public will not understand — and then blame the other side for not getting a legislative agenda accomplished.

In last year’s campaigns, House Democrats promised to change the way Congress does business — and do it within the first 100 hours they were in session. With a majority of 30-60 votes, but no supermajority requirement, the House passed its entire agenda. Despite majority support, hindered by the supermajority “cloture,” the Senate has struggled all year just to pass a few bills. The American people get the feeling the Senate is a train that never quite leaves the station.

The slow train continued July 17-18 when Republicans scuttled a Democratic proposal ordering troop withdrawals from Iraq in a showdown capping an all-night debate. The 52-47 vote fell short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, the 27th time this year alone that body has been unable to proceed on significant pieces of legislation. In the previous Congress (controlled by Republicans), Democrats were successful 34 times in blocking Republican legislation. Cloture has become the third rail of Congressional politics. It’s time for the train to move on a different track.

Everyone has been properly complaining about obstructionism, but no one has said anything about changing the Senate rule on cloture. Since Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is talking about changing Senate rules to make it easier to restrict amendments on the floor, then why shouldn’t the Senate also start the discussion about changing the cloture rule right now? It could be the difference in getting bills passed.

In early July, the minority’s decision to filibuster the amendment by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), which stated that men and women serving in the military deserved the same amount of time at home that they served overseas, died on a 56-41 failed cloture vote — a majority supporting it but the media saying it “failed.”

In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths, and it should change it again. If not an end outright, the best approach to guarantee the will of the majority, why not at least drop the requirement to 55 votes — necessitating just a little bit of extra consensus to end debate. Let the will of the American people, and of a majority of the Senate itself, be acted upon.

It’s time to end the cloture clog, regardless of who’s in charge.

Robert Weiner, president of Robert Weiner Associates Public Affairs, worked for 16 years in the House of Representatives and for six years in the Clinton White House. John Larmett, senior policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates, was legislative assistant/press secretary to Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and former Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.).