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Rob Bishop: To anyone aspiring to be senator: Scrap the filibuster

Claude Rains and James Stewart in the famous filibuster scene from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," 1939.
Claude Rains and James Stewart in the famous filibuster scene from "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," 1939.
via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Mitt, Jenny, Craig, Tim, Reed and anybody else who ever wants to be a senator:

Even though I’ve been out of the classroom for several years (once a teacher, always a teacher), there are times I just can’t help myself from handing out assignments; just ask my staff.

At the risk of being presumptuous, allow an old history and civics teacher to suggest a short reading assignment for Utah’s next senator. The one book you should read before you enter the Senate is “Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate” by Gregory Koger.

I know you’re busy. A general election campaign is no easy thing, but it’s a slender book. Heck, you don’t have to even read the whole thing. I’ll summarize for you the key parts:

"Over the last 50 years, there has been a quiet revolution in American politics. A major hurdle has been added to the legislative process: the ability of senators to block bills and nominations unless 60% of the Senate votes to override a 'filibuster.' Unlike the president’s legislative veto, which is written into the Constitution, the right to filibuster in the Senate is based on tenuous precedents and informal practices. At no point did senators consciously choose to remake their chamber or transform American politics. It just happened, and it happened so quietly we barely noticed.”

In convincing fashion, Koger's book illustrates the evolution of Senate filibustering from infrequent events to an “institutionalized supermajority rule” that impedes virtually any legislative progress.

Koger again: “Classic filibusters were contests of endurance, not votes. And they were exceedingly rare. Modern filibusters are so common that the sixty-vote threshold for cloture is the de facto requirement to pass most major legislation. ...”

Now, your future Senate colleagues will tell you the filibuster is the very essence of the “world’s most deliberative body.” They will tell you that the filibuster is the tool that enables the Senate to cool the saucer and temper the passions of the House. They will tell you that without the filibuster all sorts of terrible things would have happened to this country.

In part, they have a case. It is true that without the filibuster some horrible policies would have been enacted in the past decade, but they don’t finish the story. The part they leave out is that under a filibuster-less Senate, Congress could quickly reverse bad policies once the citizenry saw they were bad. Under the current system, it is virtually impossible to get rid of bad legislation when that is the will of the people. This is true regardless of who is in the majority or minority.

This idea that the filibuster is sacrosanct is a myth senators tell themselves. Maybe it helps them sleep at night. There is no Constitutional right to filibuster. It is a self-imposed rule of the modern Senate.

A reading of the Federalist Papers shows the founders did not intend obstruction to be the standard operating procedure of Congress. They believed that the separation of powers embedded in the Constitution was sufficient to properly vet legislation. Passing identical legislation with a majority of votes in the House, a majority of votes in the Senate and with the concurrence of a president is not an easy process. It should be enough. The founders did not set up a system of government that would systematically impede majority action on legislation. That is a modern invention, and like the instant replay rule, not always a good one.

You all have the ability to identify flaws in a system. Let me help make your D.C. diagnosis easy: The single greatest flaw in Washington is not polarization. It’s not gerrymandering. It’s not money in politics. It’s not career politicians. It’s not even the swamp. It’s the filibuster.

When you arrive in the Senate, make abolishing or at least modifying the broken filibuster your one big thing. You can be a fixer, and Washington could use some fixing.

Let me leave the last word to Koger:

“An elected majority has a responsibility to act. If a legislative minority prevents the majority party from enacting its policy goals, the linkage between elections and policy outcomes is undermined.”

The modern filibuster is simply the single greatest disenfranchising practice in America today. It stifles policy progress and experimentation. It elevates the power of the executive branch at the expense of Congress almost to the point of making Congress irrelevant. Perhaps worst of all, it undermines the public’s trust and confidence in the federal government.

​If you make this your signature issue, you will help restore legislative sanity to this country, reinstate the legislative branch as the primary actor in American politics and will ultimately have the thanks of an appreciative nation.