Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Is it Time for Filibuster Reform?

James Stewart in

James Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). In the movie, Mr. Smith launches a filibuster to postpone an appropriations bill and prove his innocence. PD.

Another partisan battle appears on the horizon and, no, it’s not about the fiscal cliff. Battle lines are being drawn over rules in the Senate. For the next Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is considering limiting filibusters on motions to proceed and debate bills (but not on votes to pass legislation), making filibusters shorter and requiring senators who want to filibuster to hold the floor of the Senate and talk. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), said even these narrow measures would marginalize the Senate minority. Quoting a 2005 speech by then-Senator Barack Obama, McConnell warned that if Reid changes the rules, hyperpartisan fighting and gridlock will only increase. Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn (Texas) went so far as to claim that the reform “will shut down the Senate. It’s such an abuse of power.” But, never mind the fact that the GOP threatened the same rule changes back in 2005 when they held the majority and Democrats were using obstructive tactics.

The co-existence of partisanship and the filibuster are nothing new in the Senate. Indeed scholars have shown that partisanship and filibusters frequently went hand-in-hand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century on issues ranging from important to trivial. For example, the 1880 election produced a narrow split between Republicans and Democrats and both parties sought to use parliamentary maneuvers to their advantage. Between March 24 and May 6 of 1881, 114 dilatory motions were made to prevent Republicans from replacing Democratic officers in the organization of the new Congress. The filibuster only ended when President Garfield agreed to remove certain appointments. In modern times, the filibuster has been increasingly used by the minority party in the Senate to block presidential appointments. For example, between 2001 and 2003 and again in 2005, Democrats utilized the parliamentary maneuver to block George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Republicans have similarly used the maneuver to prevent Barack Obama’s appointments.