Despite the election of a Democratic President and large congressional majorities, Senate filibusters have prevented Congress from addressing many of our most pressing problems. Over and over, we have seen House-passed bills blocked by a minority of Senators – refusing even to allow an up or down vote on important legislation or to confirm nominees to critical posts. In fact, since January 2009, the House of Representatives has passed more than 400 laws, and most of them will never be considered in the Senate because a filibuster – or a “hold” or other threat of a filibuster – will permit the minority to block the majority from ever getting to a vote.
Many Americans believe that the Senate has always lived with filibusters and that the current Senate logjam has its roots in 200 years of Senate history. In fact, during the entire 19th Century, there were only 23 filibusters. From 1917 (when the Senate first adopted cloture rules for cutting off debate) until 1969, there was an average of less than one filibuster a year. In the 1970 and 1980s, the annual average rose to around 17.. It was not until the Republicans lost control following the 2006 election that the number of filibusters exploded (as measured by the number of “cloture” motions that the minority forced). In the 110th Congress, there were 139 cloture motions, the record by far, and in 2008 alone one out of every five Senate votes was a cloture vote. In the current 111th Congress, coinciding with the arrival of the Obama Administration, there already have been 113 to date. Today, holds and filibuster threats have become such a routine matter that no bill or nomination can move forward until the Majority Leader can demonstrate that there are 60 votes – a super-majority – for passage.
Even one Senator can tie up the Senate for days by threatening to filibuster. Senators can filibuster motions to proceed to legislation – preventing even the debate from getting underway. By placing a hold on a nominees – a signal that 60 votes will be needed for confirmation – even one Senator can keep a critical Administration post from being filled. Currently, there are holds against 80 nominations, 20 of which are for judgeships, a record number. More importantly, filibusters have made it virtually impossible for the Congress to address the jobs crisis, energy policy or immigration reform. The cloture statistics alone – dramatic as they are -- actually understate the degree to which the Senate is now effectively controlled by a minority that is dedicated to obstruction and delay.
As just one example, in 2007 the Employee Free Choice Act passed the House with a large bipartisan majority and in the Senate a cloture vote revealed that it had the support of at least 52 Senators (and, after the 2008 elections the number of Representatives and Senators supporting EFCA grew even larger). But a Republican filibuster in 2007 and a threatened filibuster in 2009 prevented this congressional majority from enacting the bill. Even a measure extending unemployment insurance benefits, a routine matter, took seven weeks and four cloture votes – each requiring 60 votes – to be enacted earlier this year.
The Founders may have believed that making it possible for the Senate to engage in extended debate would keep the majority from acting in haste, but the Framers considered and rejected the notion that a supermajority should be required for any votes other than those on constitutional amendments, impeachment, treaties, veto overrides and expulsion of members. In fact, the filibuster evolved in order to guarantee adequate debate, not to empower a minority to block substantive consideration of a measure or nominee entirely or hijack the Senate from majority rule. Tragically, the abuse of the Senate Rules has allowed the current Republican Party in the Senate to behave as if 51 votes is no longer the benchmark for the passage of legislation or to confirm an Administration nominee. The abuse of the filibuster doesn’t just threaten our progressive agenda; it threatens our democracy and must be challenged.
The AFL-CIO calls on the Senate, when it convenes for the 112th Congress, to reform and democratize its procedures and rules. In the meantime, we will educate our members about the abuse of the filibuster and other Senate rules, join with other like-minded organizations in an effort to rally support for the reform of these rules, and use our political program to seek support from Senate candidates for a change in these rules.