Current Events & Things You Should Have Learned in School
Last week, just after the June 25th Texas senate debate when Wendy Davis filibustered Bill 5 for some ten plus hours, I heard someone say, “See Democrats in the U.S. Senate are always trying to do away with the filibuster but when it’s something they care about they resort to doing it themselves.” Leaving aside the obvious apples & oranges comparison (Davis is a Texas state senator, not a U.S. Senator) it seemed to me that the person I overheard was conflating two separate, but connected, political processes: the filibuster and cloture.
What many U.S. Senate Democrats want to do is to require a senator who wishes to stop a bill to actually be present and talking, to filibuster by putting his body where his mouth is. Currently, senators do not even need to be present to stop movement on a bill. Most Americans still think of the filibuster as a senator holding the floor for hours talking and reading anything he/she can to take up time. That is not the case with the current U.S. Senate rules. Unless there is a call for cloture, and it passes, bills can be stalled, held in limbo with the objecting senator truly having no skin in the game.
Think back to the dim days of Mr. Moody’s 8th grade civics class. Civics, by and large, was a dull affair. It lacked the pizzazz of history and possessed all the charm of balancing a bank account. Like health class, it was always taught by the coaches of our sporting teams. But I do recall our discussions around the process of cloture (from the French for closure.)
According to the U.S. Senate Glossary, in an attempt to curtail unlimited debate whose purpose was to block voting and adoption of a bill, “in 1917, senators adopted a rule (Rule 22), at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, that allowed the Senate to end a debate with a two-thirds majority vote, a device known as ‘cloture.’” If cloture passed, an up or down vote on the bill in question could then be taken after an additional thirty hours of debate, thus breaking a bottleneck. Wilson had called for enacting a cloture provision because he saw the senate as,
“the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action. A little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.”
Wilson’s sharp talk was in response to a twenty-three day filibuster against his placing arms on merchant ships in World War I.
Southern senators filibustered against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for sixty days, proving that two-thirds of the Senate, 67 votes, can be a difficult thing to get. Between 1917 and 1960 cloture was used only four times. In 1975 the number of senators needed for approval on a vote of cloture was reduced to 60 votes, with 16 members needed to bring the cloture question up for a vote. In the 110th Congress (2007-2008) cloture was enacted 61 times and then 63 times in the 2009-2010 congress. Yes, that’s correct, the 111th congress in one term voted cloture more than fifteen times the frequency it occurred in the first 43 years of its existence as a senate rule.
It is worth pointing out that the additional 30 hours of permitted debate after cloture is ruled, must be “on the measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate.” That is, you cannot read out your mother’s recipe for Derby pie or eloquently speechify on the entries in a dictionary (unless either of these is somehow relevant to the bill on the floor!)
Fortunately, the filibuster was eliminated from the U.S. House of Representatives’ rules as the assembly began to grow larger with the addition of new states. Could our already greatly deadlocked lower legislature be even less effective?