On Monday, Sept. 21, Senator Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., took to the floor of the United States Senate in an effort to warn people that without the Senate filibuster, "you can kiss state right-to-work laws goodbye."
It is my belief that if we continue the modern Senate filibuster/cloture processes, you can kiss our republic and its democratic principles goodbye.
Respectfully to my neighbor to my immediate South, and notwithstanding that our offices work on numerous cross-border issues together, I submit in this case he is wrong on the issue, the history and the facts. Any attempt to imply that abandonment of the modern filibuster and cloture procedures amounts to tacit approval of abolishing right-to-work laws is merely an attempt to scare conservative reformers.
Most of us advocating filibuster reform do not want a total elimination of extended debate. Rather, we support a return to the process that existed prior to the 1970s, when filibustering senators were present on the floor of the Senate and spoke in the well. That process allowed a senator or senators who were vehement and passionate about their positions to debate any issue for as long as they physically could, or unless there was a supermajority to end the debate. Allowing a minority in those few occasions when they are so passionate they are willing to take the floor for hours or days is appropriate, but that's not how the modern filibuster works.
The historical filibuster allowed senators who felt passionately about an issue to stand in the well in the Senate vigorously debating a bill as in the classic film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." But changes in 1975 established the current modern filibuster/cloture process. No longer are senators required to make their case live on the floor. Sometimes called a "virtual filibuster," they may now merely threaten a filibuster before heading off to have a juicy steak and adult beverage, to watch their favorite sitcom on TV or to mingle with lobbyists at a fundraiser.
It is the practice of needing 60 votes in the Senate to stop one of these "virtual filibusters" that many of us seek to change.
It is now common practice for senators to filibuster or merely threaten a filibuster even on a motion to proceed. This practice prevents most legislation from being debated on the floor at all. This gives a minority the power to effectively block governance by the legislative branch.
Alexander either does not understand the rule changes which occurred in the 1970s, or he is intentionally attempting to confuse the people of America. The modern filibuster/cloture practices adopted with these changes are closer in philosophy to 1840s South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun's theory to solve "the tyranny of the majority" than to Jeffersonian principles.
In his recent efforts to defend the modern filibuster rule, Alexander noted President Lyndon Johnson's efforts in 1965 and 1966 to abolish state right-to-work laws, arguing that a "threatened filibuster by the Senate Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen" stopped him.
However, Johnson's efforts were not defeated as a result of a "virtual filibuster" under the modern filibuster/cloture procedures that Alexander defended, but were in fact defeated by the historical filibuster/cloture rules. As one CQ Almanac article reads: "President Johnson's 1965 legislative program suffered one of its few defeats late in the session when Senators conducted a successful filibuster against a bill (HR 77) to repeal Section 14 (b) of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act." This "extended debate" continued for approximately seven days before Senate leadership stopped pursuing HR 77. The Johnson Administration and its allies attempted again in 1966 to repeal a state's authority to have right-to-work laws, and were again met with long debate in opposition.
I acknowledge the argument made by Alexander that the reform I am supporting would likely result in tough votes for members of Congress. But as lawmakers, it is our responsibility — our job — to do our research, try to do the right thing for our constituents, and take tough votes. This is the duty of both senators and representatives. After elected officials take the tough votes, it is the right of the people to hold their lawmakers responsible for their votes.
Rather than encouraging debate, discussion and compromise, the modern filibuster/cloture procedures are being used as tools by a minority to keep important issues from being discussed at all.
Ultimately, I believe that eliminating the modern filibuster/cloture procedures will allow more bills to be voted on. More voting will, in my opinion, lead to more compromises, and more compromises will allow the legislative branch to make more progress on the important issues of the day such as growing jobs and our economy.
Returning to the historical filibuster and cloture procedures will help Congress to once again be a co-equal branch of government and accordingly give Congress a higher positive profile in the minds of the American people.