Filibuster Mini-Reforms Unveiled

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 3:48 PM EST

Greg Sargent has posted a summary of the filibuster reforms that Democrats plan to introduce later today, and it's a fairly modest effort. Here are the bullet points:

  1. Eliminates Secret Holds
  2. Right to Amend: Guarantees Consideration of Amendments for both Majority and Minority
  3. Clear Path to Debate: Eliminate the Filibuster on Motions to Proceed
  4. Expedite Nominations: Reduce Post-Cloture Time
  5. Talking Filibuster: Ensures Real Debate

Eliminating secret holds and giving the minority a right to amend legislation are both good ideas, but neither really does anything to rein in filibusters. Of the other three items, #3 and #4 basically reduce the amount of floor time that filibusters eat up. You still need 60 votes to proceed, but you can only filibuster the main motion, not both the main motion and the motion to proceed, and post-cloture debate on nominations is reduced to two hours instead of the current 30. (Legislation still gets 30 hours of post-cloture debate.)

Finally, there's #5: require honest to goodness Jimmy-Stewart-talk-til-you-drop debate if you want to filibuster a bill. It's not clear just how this would work technically, but in any case it's not really much of an impediment to filibusters. If you have 40 senators willing to join in, each one just reads the phone book for an hour or two and then yields. That's about one hour of phone book reading per week per senator, which is hardly onerous. In fact, it's so obviously non-onerous that I imagine it changes nothing in practice. Once the minority starts up and demonstrates that it's willing to engage in a talkathon, the majority will give up and move to other business. Before long, this will morph into the same convention we have now: simply announce that you're willing to talk and the majority takes you at your word.

Overall, then, this is a pretty weak reform package. Items #3 and #4 are worthwhile, but the others are mostly window dressing. The Senate will remain a 60-vote body, but if you can scrounge up those 60 votes then things will move along a bit faster than before. That's about it.

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