Limiting filibuster a remedy for stymied Congress

Elizabeth Warren, the new U.S. Senator-elect from Massachusetts, is a woman on a mission.

Warren ran as a fiercely articulate progressive and says she intends to govern the same way. However, she will inevitably encounter roadblocks to the change and progress she, like President Barack Obama, promised in her campaign.

Obama and Warren will share this burden: the Senate.

How can this be?

After all, Democrats have the majority and control the agenda in the Senate. Obama is a Democrat. So is Warren.

Where is the conflict?

The conflict lies in the structure of the Senate. It was intended to provide the federal legislature with a measure of stability.

Senators serve six-year terms, while members of the House of Representatives serve much shorter terms — just two years. The House was designed to be more responsive to the will of the electorate. Turnover in the House is more frequent than in the Senate. A calmer Senate is considered to serve as a sort of foot brake in the case of a rambunctious House.

On occasion, however, this metaphorical foot brake can look more like a dull, dragging anchor.

That anchor is the filibuster.

Senate parliamentary rules allow any senator to “hold the floor” in debate — this is a filibuster.

The filibustering senator may not sit or lean against anything, and he or she must continue speaking for as long as he or she holds the floor. This procedure may prevent — or at the very least, delay — a bill’s passage in which the filibustering senator opposes.

According to Warren’s column on The Huffington Post, “Any senator can make a phone call, say they object to a bill, and then head out for the night. In the meantime, business comes to a screeching halt.”

It’s easy to see the appeal of the filibuster to both major political parties. Should they ever find themselves in the minority, they do not have to relinquish all hope of influencing the Senate’s agenda.

This so-called forward-looking mentality has prevented the Senate majority from limiting the filibuster for years.

But in January when the 113th Congress takes office, Warren, along with seven of her colleagues in the Senate intend to change the way filibusters work.

Warren refers to the classic film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as an example of the way filibusters are perceived, but this phenomenon is no longer a reality. Warren and others think it should be more difficult for senators to block legislation approved by any majority of senators, whether that be a simple or a two-thirds majority.

The 112th Congress has passed the fewest laws since 1947, according to a USA Today article: Only 61 bills were passed by the House and Senate in 2012 and sent on to the president to be signed into law. In 2010, Congress passed over 250 laws.

At the same time, a Gallup poll shows that only 10 percent of Americans approve of the 112th Congress’s job performance — another record low.

Discouraging the use of filibusters — not fully eliminating them — would compel filibustering senators to increase Congress’s productivity and respond more quickly to national issues as they arise.


Reach the columnist at or follow her at @SavannahKThomas


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