Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- The Filibuster: “Democracy’s finest show . . . the right to talk your head off”

Posted on January 7, 2011

Voters who turned out in November are going to be pretty disappointed when they learn the first thing some Democrats want to do is cut off the right of the people they elected to make their voices heard on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

In the November elections, voters showed that they remember the passage of the health care law on Christmas Eve, 2009: midnight sessions, voting in the midst of a snow storm, back room deals, little time to read, amend or debate the bill, passage by a straight party line vote. It was how it was done as much as what was done that angered the American people. 

Yet, as the 112th Congress convenes, some Democrats are threatening to try to change the rules so it would be easier to do with every piece of legislation what they did with the health care bill. 

Their plan, they say, is to “take steps to bring [Republican] abuses of our rules to an end,” most notably by limiting the filibuster—that debating tool unique to the Senate and made famous in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which it was called “Democracy’s finest show: the filibuster—the right to talk your head off.”

The Democratic proposal would allow the Senate to change its rules with only 51 votes, ending the historical practice of allowing any senator at any time to offer any amendment until 60 senators decide it is time to end debate.  As Investor’s Business Daily wrote, “The Senate Majority Leader has a plan to deal with Republican electoral success. When you lose the game, you simply change the rules. When you only have 53 votes, you lower the bar to 51.”  This is called election nullification. 

Democrats are proposing to use the very tactics that in the past almost every Democratic leader has denounced, including President Obama and Vice President Biden, who has said that it is “a naked power grab” and destructive of the Senate as a protector of minority rights.

Let’s be clear about the meaning of the word “filibuster.”  Let’s say the majority leader brings up the health care bill.  I go down to the floor to offer an amendment and speak on it.  The majority leader says “no” and cuts off my amendment.  I object.  He calls what I tried to do a filibuster. I call what he did cutting off my right to speak and amend which is what I was elected to do.

So the real “party of no” is the majority party that has been saying “no” to debate and “no” to voting on amendments that minority members believe improve legislation and express the voices of the people they represent.

Diluting the right to debate and vote on amendments deprives the nation of a valuable forum for achieving consensus on difficult issues.  The founders knew what they were doing when they created two very different houses in Congress. The Senate operates largely by unanimous consent.  There is the opportunity, unparalleled in any other legislative body in the world, to debate and amend until a consensus finally is reached.  This procedure takes longer, but it usually produces a better result – and a result the country is more likely to accept. 

The reform the Senate needs is a change in its behavior, not a change in its rules. I have talked with many senators, on both sides of the aisle, and I believe most of us want the same thing: a Senate where most bills are considered by committee, come to the floor as a result of bipartisan cooperation, are debated and amended and then voted upon.

There are some other steps that can be taken to help the Senate function better without impairing minority rights, such as ending the three-day work week--the Senate during 2010 did not vote on one single Friday; ending the practice of secret holds; and making it easier for any President to staff his government with key officials within a reasonable period of time.

But instead of this power grab, as the new Congress begins, the goal should be to restore the Senate to its historic role—as under the leadership of Senator Howard Baker—where the voices of the people can be heard, rather than silenced, where their ideas can be offered as amendments, rather than suppressed, and where those amendments can be debated and voted upon rather than cut off.