Reforming the Filibuster

Gerard Magliocca - Indiana University Indianapolis

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The most troubling countermajoritarian difficulty in modern constitutional law is Rule Twenty-Two of the United States Senate. Forty-one Senators, who could represent less than forty-one percent of the population due to the malapportionment of the Senate, can veto most legislation and nominations by refusing to invoke “cloture.”  A vote against cloture by that Senate minority sustains debate indefinitely as a filibuster.  Although the filibuster is woven into our political folklore and critical to the legislative process, not many legal scholars have examined the practice.  This lack of interest is surprising, because the presumption that a supermajority is required for most Senate action is a recent development.

For most of its history, the Senate functioned on the premise (except for civil rights legislation) that a simple majority was sufficient unless an issue was taken up in the closing days of a Congress.  During that era, which lasted until the 1970s, unlimited debate was mainly a procedural device that protected free speech, improved the quality of deliberation, and revealed the intensity of preferences within the Senate.  But today cloture is little more than a substantive supermajority rule that cannot be justified on those traditional grounds or as a necessary device for securing minority rights.

My Essay evaluates the tradition of unlimited debate in the Senate and argues that a refusal to vote for cloture should result in a suspensory, rather than an absolute,veto.  In other words, forty-one Senators should be able to delay a vote by extending debate on bills or nominations that reach the floor for no more than one year.  This proposal is modeled on the power of the British House of Lords to block most bills passed by the House of Commons from becoming law for a maximum of one year.  I argue that such a system would strike a better balance between a majority’s right to rule and the minority’s right to be heard.

The main reason why cloture should be reformed is that unlimited Senate debate is now little more than a legal fiction.  Under the modern two-track legislative calendar that allows the Senate to proceed to other business while a bill or nomination is being filibustered, declining to vote for cloture does not lead to extended floor debate–it leads to no floor debate.  The Majority Leader almost always pulls the disputed bill (or does not bring it forward in the first place) and turns to something else.  In effect, the modern filibuster operates as a gag rule.  Since it is impractical to end the two-track system because of the Senate’s aversion to the unpleasant schedule that is created by round-the-clock speeches, there is no persuasive deliberative basis for the current cloture rule.  On the other hand, solicitude for minority rights and a desire to stop laws from being rushed through without appropriate scrutiny suggest that permitting the majority to end a debate at any time would be wrong.  Ironically, the House of Lords, which is the least studied or respected legislative body in any major democracy, offers the best way of thinking about the filibuster.  The Lords’ suspensory veto is the product of nearly a century of debate in Britain about the role that countermajoritarian practices should play within a democratic legislature, and thus is analogous to the ongoing debate over the proper scope of minority rights within the Senate.

Giving forty-one senators the power to delay nominations or bills for only a limited period of time would have several advantages.  First, a minority that knows it cannot block a pending matter without convincing the majority to reverse course would have a strong incentive to take the floor and make its case.  This would enhance the quality of debate in the Senate on many issues and make dissidents accountable in a way that they are not under current filibuster practice, whereby they do not need to say anything.  Second, giving the minority the right to impose a “cooling-off” period would keep the majority from acting recklessly and let voters express their views in an election before a bill introduced at the end of a Congress could be enacted.  Third, suspensory cloture would give the Senate a way to sort its internal preferences.  If the majority failed to bring up a measure until a few months before the election, then that would show that its preference was rather weak because a filibuster could kill the proposal until the next Congress.  At the same time, the minority would be making a significant statement if it fought to the bitter end on a timely matter despite knowing that the effort would be futile.

There is nothing magical about using one year as the cloture limit.  I am simply borrowing that figure from the procedure used between the House of Lords and the House of Commons.  Since the Senate often stands in recess for a month, the cloture rule could not be that short.  Likewise, a veto longer than a year would require a majority to move something to the floor very early in a Congress to avoid a filibuster, which would be a considerable burden.  In the final analysis, there is room for experimentation on this question.  The 1911 Parliament Act, which essentially created the suspensory veto of the Lords, set that period of delay at two years for most bills.  It was not until 1949 that this limit was lowered to one.

Convincing people that the filibuster should be turned into a suspensory veto is one thing; convincing senators to adopt this idea is another.  Public pressure forced the adoption of the first cloture rule in 1917, but that may not be enough this time.  Indeed, despite growing calls for reform, in 2011 the Senate rejected any modification of Rule Twenty-Two in favor of a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the party leaders that cloture abuses would be curbed.  On an issue that is central to its inner workings, the Senate has responded only when institutional pressure was brought to bear.  For instance, when reformers sought to end the power of one-third of the Senate to control Native American policy by rejecting tribal treaties, the House of Representatives refused to appropriate funds for those treaties and forced the Senate to agree that the Tribes should always be regulated by ordinary legislation.  When progressives could not get a Senate supermajority to pass the proposed Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators, almost two-thirds of state legislatures petitioned for a constitutional convention, and the Senate gave way.  And when internationalists in the 1940s wanted to make sure that a Senate minority could not repeat the mistake of rejecting the League of Nations, the House passed a constitutional amendment abolishing the treaty ratification process, and the Senate accepted the idea that a congressional-executive agreement passed just like a bill could be the legal equivalent of a treaty.  Obtaining cloture reform may require this kind of robust action from other elected officials.

One way to pressure the Senate would be for the President and the House to propose new framework statutes, not unlike the budget reconciliation process, that would place strict restrictions on debate about laws on certain subjects.  The Senate would probably resist these initiatives, but forcing senators to take that position visibly and often might lead them to rethink their stance on cloture.  If the Senate accepted more of these framework laws, it would undercut current cloture practice and give the House and the President an opening to impose a suspensory veto on the Senate through similar legislation.  The House could also deny earmarks to senators who support Rule Twenty-Two, mimicking how the power of the purse was used to end tribal treaties, though such an approach would require a single-minded focus on cloture reform that may be difficult to sustain.

Maintaining the integrity of a tradition often requires change.  The custom of extended debate in the Senate was consistent with the principle of majority rule for almost two centuries. But alterations in the size, work, and rules of the Senate have rendered the practice untenable without substantial reform.  The best solution lies with an adaptation of the suspensory veto wielded by the House of Lords. Giving forty-one senators the right to delay action for only a period of time will restore the majority’s substantive power while reviving the deliberative benefits long associated with the filibuster.  Though the Senate will probably not rush to embrace a revision of its rules, a mix of persuasion and pressure can help to catalyze the change that is necessary to restore the legitimacy of this critical procedural device.  I could go on forever about the wisdom of my proposal, but I will now yield the floor.

Acknowledgments

Gerard N. Magliocca is a Professor of Law at Indiana School of Law-Indianapolis.

Copyright © 2011 Northwestern University School of Law.

This Legal Workshop piece is based on the following article:  Gerard N. Magliocca, Reforming the Filibuster, 105 N.W. U. L. REV. 303 (2011).


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