It’s time to replace the Senate “supermajority” filibuster rule This commentary first appeared in March of this year. It is no less urgent today.
The Senate's filibuster rule is archaic, backward, and undemocratic. Its creation of a de facto supermajority for Senate approval of a question is inconsistent with the intent of our Constitution. A replacement rule that assures adequate debate while putting the onus on those who wish to extend debate is long overdue.
The Senate’s cloture rule that allows a minority of 41% of Senators to prevent the full Senate from bringing a question to a vote has always struck me as both undemocratic and a violation of the spirit of our Constitution.
Commonly known as the “filibuster rule”, this rule was originally intended to facilitate debate by assuring each Senator has sufficient time to present a reasoned argument on the merits of a pending vote.
Unfortunately, the filibuster rule has been so abused over the years that it has become little more than an unconstitutional de facto requirement for a supermajority of 60 votes to bring a question to a vote of the full Senate.
There are far better ways to assure Senators have adequate opportunity for debate.
As it stands today, in order to invoke cloture to bring debate to a close and proceed to a vote of the full Senate, a supermajority of 60% of Senators is required. Consequently, questions having the approval of 59% of Senators can be blockaded by just 41% of Senators. This is entirely inconsistent with the original intent of the cloture rule designed to assure adequate debate. It is a particular affront to the Senate when those engaging in a filibuster speak on a variety of subjects completely unrelated to the question at hand. Rather than assuring adequate debate, this rule is routinely used to prevent a vote of the full Senate when it is perceived the question would be approved by up to 59% of Senators.
Using the filibuster to prevent majority approval of a question is undemocratic and contrary to both the spirit of our Constitution and the intent of the Senate cloture rule.
A candidate for office is often perceived to have won in "a landslide" if he receives a 10% plurality (55% to 45%). Yet a 55-45 vote of the Senate is far short of that which is required by the Senate's cloture rule to bring a question to a full Senate vote! This is insanity.
While the importance of adequate debate of the merits of every question before the Senate is universally acknowledged, the onus should not be placed on those wishing to end debate and proceed to a vote, it should rightfully be the task of those who wish to extend debate to convince the Senate as a whole that cloture should not be invoked, debate halted, and the question put to a full Senate vote..
A reasonable alternative to the “filibuster rule” would both assure adequate debate of the merits of a pending question while also preventing the cloture rule from becoming a de facto requirement for a question to receive a supermajority of 60% of the whole Senate.
Here is an outline of just one such alternative:
Each Senator would be allotted a maximum of one hour debate time to argue for or against a pending question.
Each Senator would be required to confine his remarks to the merits of the pending question. Any speaker who fails to confine his remarks to the merits of the question being debated would be subject to a procedural vote that could strip him of his remaining allotment of speaking time.
Should a Senator wish to continue presenting arguments beyond his allotted time, other Senators would be free to donate all or a portion of their allotment to the Senator who had the floor; however, no Senator who has previously donated a portion of his time to another speaker shall be permitted to seek additional speaking time for himself.
Whenever a Senator exhausts his time (both allotted and donated), that Senator must yield the floor.
Exception: When a Senator's time expires, he may request a vote of the full Senate to extend his speaking time for a maximum of one additional hour. If a request does not receive at least 60% approval of the full Senate, that Senator must immediately yield the floor. If the request for extension is approved, the Senator’s time would be extended by a maximum of one hour. This extension would expire the earlier of (1) when the Senator concluded his arguments, or (2) when the extra hour expires.
At any time during debate, if any Senator believes a speaker is not confining his remarks to the merits of the question under consideration, a point of order may be called and an immediate ruling by the Senate Parliamentarian shall govern whether the speaking Senator may continue. Should there be any objection to the Senate Parliamentarian’s ruling, the matter will be resolved by an immediate vote of the full Senate to either adopt or override the ruling. In this instance, a 60% supermajority would be required to override the Senate Parliamentarian’s ruling. If a Senator were found not to be speaking to the merits of the bill under consideration, that Senator would forfeit his remaining debate time and would be required to immediately yield the floor.
This proposal provides a process by which Senators can extend debate time whenever 60% of Senators believe additional debate time is necessary, properly putting the onus to block cloture on those who wish to extend debate.
The great advantage of this proposed change to the cloture rule is that it both assures sufficient time for reasonable debate of the merits of a question while it simultaneously eliminates the requirement for a supermajority to bring a question to a vote of the full Senate.
It’s time to stop holding our nation’s legislative process hostage to the Senate's archaic, backward, and undemocratic filibuster rule.
 In order to facilitate ease of reading, gender-neutral use of male pronouns is common throughout this commentary.
Biography - Bob Webster
Bob Webster, a 12th-generation descendent of both the Darte family (Connecticut, 1630s) and the Webster family (Massachusetts, 1630s) is a descendant of Daniel Webster's father, Revolutionary War patriot Ebenezer Webster, who served with General Washington. Bob has always had a strong interest in early American history, our Constitution, U.S. politics, and law. Politically he is a constitutional republican with objectivist and libertarian roots. He has faith in the ultimate triumph of truth and reason over deception and emotion. He is a strong believer in our Constitution as written and views the abandonment of constitutional restraint by the regressive Progressive movement as a great danger to our Republic. His favorite novel is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and believes it should be required reading for all high school students so they can appreciate the cost of tolerating the growth of unconstitutional crushingly powerful central government. He strongly believes, as our Constitution enshrines, that the interests of the individual should be held superior to the interests of the state.
A lifelong interest in meteorology and climatology spurred his strong interest in science. Bob earned his degree in Mathematics at Virginia Tech, graduating in 1964.