Appropriate filibuster reform needed

Credit: Braden Kelner/Forum Editor Credit: Braden Kelner/Forum Editor
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The United States Senate eliminated the use of filibusters for high-position nominations made by presidents this past Thursday. Executive-office appointments may now be approved by a simple majority, rather than by the 60-vote supermajority required since 1975. This change in legislation means that the majority can approve nominations without bipartisan support. This ruling will not affect Supreme Court nominations, or actual legislation.

Democrats — among them majority leader Senator Harry Reid (D–Nev.) and President Barack Obama — believe that this change in procedure is part of the natural evolution of the Senate, and will end the bitterly partisan gridlocks that have dominated nearly every Senate decision since President Obama took office. Republicans, including minority leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.), claim that the Democrats have deeply damaged the system of Senate, and muffled the voice of the minority in politics.

While the limits placed on filibusters have the potential to backfire, they are a justified attempt to change a system that has sustained heavy damage from partisan politics. The partisan division of politics has become an extreme problem in U.S. politics, requiring an extreme solution.

The limitation of filibusters comes with consequences, the most glaring being that the change sets a potentially dangerous precedent. Currently, the law has no effect on legislation or Supreme Court nominations, but that could change. Democrats are making a huge gamble that they will retain control of the Senate in the 2014 election. Even if Democrats maintain their majority in this upcoming election, they will lose it eventually, as is the way of politics. Republican leaders have indicated that if they regain the majority in the Senate, they could use these changes to end the Affordable Care Act with a simple majority. The elimination of filibusters is not without its problems or implications.

However, examining why Democrats felt the need to employ these limitations on the use of filibusters is also extremely important. Historically, filibuster reforms have been implemented after extreme use of filibusters. The Senate implemented the two-thirds majority rule in 1917, in response to repeated filibusters over President Woodrow Wilson's preparations for World War I. In 1919, this rule came into effect and ended a filibuster of the Treaty of Versailles. In short, filibusters were created to deal with extremely important governmental decisions; they were created for the big issues.

However, this use has changed over time, as evidenced by the Republicans' filibustering of all of President Obama's nominations for the Washington, D.C. circuit court and other high officials. Republicans who filibustered these positions rarely offered a concrete reason as to why they disapproved of those particular candidates, and appear to be filibustering just to block Democratic attempts at governance, which is a clear abuse of the nature of filibusters. Both parties are guilty of misusing filibusters for political purposes, and the filibuster has strayed far afield from its original intention: to address massively important issues, not simply gum up the works of politics.

Throughout the years since Wilson, filibusters have not been used excessively, though their popularity increased during President George W. Bush's term. According to Mother Jones , during President Bush's administration, Democrats filibustered 38 of his nominees, or roughly five per year. However, that number has seen a dramatic increase during President Obama's term, with an average of 16 nominees filibustered per year — triple the amount we saw with Bush. This is clear indication that the filibuster is being used to hobble the majority's attempts to lead. Filibusters should only be used when the minority party has clear and deep-seated concerns with a particular candidate or issue.

The two most popular opinions on the Democrats' decision to limit filibusters are these: that the Democrats are making a grab for more power — at the expense of the possibilities this precedent creates — and that they are trying to work with a thoroughly partisan and deeply fractured system. Though this decision will certainly have consequences, it was a justified attempt to fix a system that has been scarred by partisan politics.