The looming Democratic attempt to rewrite Senate rules lacks an obvious insight, conservative leaders said today: The filibuster might slow legislation, but that’s often its most positive feature.
“For every one good thing the filibuster blocks, there are 10 bad things that don’t happen because the filibuster’s there,” former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said this afternoon at The Bloggers Briefing, a meeting at The Heritage Foundation.
Not that Santorum hasn’t experienced the frustrations of a filibuster. When he was a freshman senator, much of his favored legislation fell short of 60 votes -- the number required to end debate and move to a vote on legislation. Once, upset with the system, Santorum complained to a senior senator, who said exactly what Santorum says now: “If it’s a good idea, it’ll pass in six or seven years.”
“The concept of six or seven years of waiting to pass a good idea certainly did not sit well with me,” Santorum said. “But if I were in the Senate and I were coming back from a vote with a young man who was upset because of something that didn’t pass that the filibuster blocked, then I would give the same speech.”
So, too, might Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the Senate Rules Committee.
Speaking at a separate event at Heritage today, Alexander, quoting “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” called the filibuster “democracy’s finest show … the right to talk your head off.”
“Diluting the right to debate and vote on amendments deprives the nation of a valuable forum for achieving consensus on difficult issues,” Alexander said. “This procedure takes longer, but it usually produces a better result -- and a result the country is more likely to accept.”
Critics of the filibuster contend the exact opposite -- that the filibuster prevents the passage of broadly supported legislation.
“It’s important for us to recognize that, in the last two years, it has become clear to anyone who has watched that the Senate as a body is broken,” Common Cause President Bob Edgar said today on a conference call with reporters. “The wishes of the majority of senators as well as the majority of the American people are too often cast aside in favor of unfettered rule by a small minority. The filibuster, as it is currently practiced, in the opinion of Common Cause, is unconstitutional and un-American.”
Alexander agrees the Senate needs to resolve rules-related issues. He just disagrees with the Democrats’ proposed way of doing that. (Incidentally, in the past, many Democrats have defended the filibuster.)
“There is no doubt the Senate has been reduced to a shadow of itself as the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Alexander said. “But the demise of the Senate is not because Republicans seek to filibuster. The real obstructionists have been the Democratic majority which, for an unprecedented number of times, used their majority advantage to limit debate, not to allow amendments and to bypass the normal committee consideration of legislation.”
For that very reason, Santorum cautioned conservatives to not be complacent about this issue.
“We underestimate the power of those on the left to further increase government and use the simple majority in the Senate to grow government even more,” he said. “I am for keeping the filibuster. If it’s a good idea, it’ll pass in six or seven years.”
Tina Korbe is a staff writer in the Center for Media and Public Policy, an investigative journalism unit at The Heritage Foundation.