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Restoring Majority Rule in the Senate

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I spent 12 of the most interesting years of my life in Congress and I grew to love the place. I was fortunate to work with people of good will and good ideas in both political parties; service was particularly satisfying when we were able to cross Washington's partisan divide to help move the country forward.

Sadly, those moments are rare these days. Ideological purists in both parties appear to have taken control of Congress and of the national dialogue. Voices of moderation and conciliation are being drowned out on the airwaves and inside the Capitol; critical problems are going unaddressed.

Things are especially bad in the Senate. Both parties have figured out that the minority, currently the Republicans, can use the filibuster rule to pretty much shut the place down.

Here's how the obstructionists work. To begin debate on a bill, senators must first adopt a "motion to proceed." But debate on that motion, as on most everything else that comes before the Senate, is unlimited unless at least 60 senators vote to end it. That means a minority of as few as 41 can block any action simply by refusing to permit a vote on the motion to proceed.

Thus the filibuster does not extend debate -- its supposed purpose -- it stops debate. In recent years, filibusters have prevented senators from acting on presidential nominations for judgeships and other offices, as well as bills to hold down interest rates on student loans, force the rich to pay their fair share in income taxes, and end tax subsidies to oil companies. Rather than debating bills and exchanging ideas on the floor, in view of the public and press, senators are pushed by the filibuster into back room deal-making sessions to get a vote on even the most routine legislation.

When the 111th Congress opened last year, the filibuster rule even denied my friend Sen. Tom Udall a chance to make the case for filibuster reform to his colleagues; the minority used the filibuster rule to block discussion on Udall's proposal to change the rule.

Simply put, that's unacceptable. It's an affront to our democracy and not the way the Senate was supposed to work. And it has real consequences for real people.

That's why Common Cause filed suit on Monday to stop it.

Our lawsuit argues that the Constitution sets out super-majority requirements only in special cases, to override a presidential veto or ratify a treaty, for example. It does not permit the Senate to require more than a simple majority just to begin debate; and the Supreme Court already has said that a legislative body's rules cannot conflict with the Constitution.

Congressional plaintiffs in our suit include Reps. John Lewis, D-GA, Michael Michaud, D-ME, Hank Johnson, D-GA, and Keith Ellison, D-MN.

Our other plaintiffs are three young people who recently put themselves through college, graduating with honors, after being brought to America by immigrant parents. They are eager to assume the rights and responsibilities of adulthood and of U.S. citizenship; one even wants to join the brave Americans who daily put their lives on the line in the Marine Corps.

But their path ahead has been blocked by the Senate's refusal to debate and vote on a bill, the DREAM Act, that has passed the House and is supported by a majority of senators.

The filibuster also is denying justice to tens of thousands of Americans. Twelve of President Obama's nominees for vacant federal judgeships, all with bipartisan support and nominated in states where the backlog of pending cases is so large that court administrators have declared a "judicial emergency," are being kept off the Senate floor by filibustering senators.

We had hoped that an agreement worked out by Sens. Reid and McConnell, the Senate Democratic and Republican leaders, at the beginning of this Congress in January 2011 would go a long way toward solving the filibuster problem. The Reid/McConnell arrangement has had little effect however, and the Senate remains too often hamstrung.

Open and at times extended debates are a Senate tradition worth preserving. There is no basis for the claims, made by some filibuster defenders, that reform of the filibuster rule would permit the majority in the Senate to run roughshod over the minority. In today's Senate, it's the few who are running roughshod over the American people. If the Senate won't address the problem, the courts must.

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