12/28/2012 12:12 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2013

Has the Time Come For Filibuster Reform?

Emily is a member of the Junior State of America (JSA), a student-run political awareness organization for high school students.

With an approval rating below 20 percent, it is obvious that Americans are not content with Congress. The 112th Congress has been highly unproductive. One reason for this could be a lack of action in the US Senate. Filibustering, the use of dilatory tactics in an attempt to delay or prevent action, has been a major problem in the US Senate for several years. The tactic is causing obstruction in Congress, and the problem will continue to exist if the United States remains as partisan as it is now. Filibuster reform needs to be implemented to ensure that the number of obstacles does not continue to escalate.

The common act of filibustering gained attention in the media recently when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell essentially filibustered a bill he introduced himself. McConnell proposed a vote which would have given President Obama the unlimited authority to increase the United States' borrowing limit. He attempted to embarrass Democrats by calling for an immediate vote on the measure, but ended up shaming himself when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats agreed. Sen. McConnell then refused, and began to filibuster his own bill by stating that it needed 60 votes to pass instead of the usual 50. Critics slammed McConnell, calling his move "idiotic."

Before the 1970's, the filibuster was an annoying rarity, but the number of filibusters in the Senate has skyrocketed since 2007. One hundred and thirty-nine motions for cloture were filed during the 110th Congress. In the 111th Congress, there were 137. Now just the threat of a filibuster is enough to end debate on a bill. The filibuster is so widely used in the Senate that it is changing the institution. In 2007, Sen. Harry Reid said, "Sixty votes are required for just about anything." While this has continued to be true, the Founding Fathers never intended for the Senate to function this way. Some advocates for the filibuster might argue that it is an old tradition. In fact, the tactic originated by accident when Senators became aware that they could hold the floor for an unlimited amount of time when no time limit was set for the debate of a bill. In 1917 the Senate introduced cloture, which is the procedure used to break a filibuster by putting a time limit on the consideration of a matter. Sixty votes are needed for a cloture vote to pass, and this motion is proposed far too often. Bills were intended to pass with a simple majority, not three-fifths. Very little can be accomplished when a supermajority is required to pass any controversial legislation.

Sen. Reid has stated that he will work to limit the power of the Republican senators to obstruct legislation. There are several proposed ideas for how to reduce the number of filibusters in the Senate. One such idea is banning filibusters on motions to proceed, which are required to open debate on any bill. Another small step in reform could be to ban filibustering on votes to confirm nominees and appointments.
Additionally, the process itself could be altered by reducing the number of votes necessary for cloture. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico wants to change the rules of the Senate at the beginning of the next session to include the "constitutional option." Several Democrats, including Sen. Reid, have voiced their support of the constitutional option, or "nuclear option," which would amend the cloture rule to require a simple majority to override a filibuster.

The Republican party has been mostly responsible for this obstructionism, however, they are currently the minority party of the Senate. If the Republican Party gains control of the Senate, it is safe to assume that Democrats will attempt to use filibustering to prevent the consideration of proposed legislation they do not support. Regardless of which party has control over the Senate, legislators elected to represent their states should be doing as much as they can to efficiently debate policy, for that is what they have been elected to do. When Congress reconvenes in January, the Senate should seriously consider voting to change the rules to prevent the frequent use of the filibuster from becoming an established feature of the Congress for years to come.