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Topics Homepage> The U.S. Senate should abolish the filibuster

The U.S. Senate should abolish the filibuster

PRO (4 assertions)

Grabbers:

“What I worry about would be simple majoritarian absolute power and that’s just not what the founders intended. The filibuster stops this.” stated Barack Obama, then Illinois Senator, in 2005.

“The modern filibuster, the talking filibuster, is a transparent antidote to hasty legislation and other sneaky last-ditch attempts and offer uncharacteristic authenticity from politicians that contradicts popular cynicism,” stated Texas State Senator Wendy Davis.

 

Define:

Abolish - to formally put an end to

Filibuster - an action such as a prolonged speech that obstructs progress in a legislative assembly. In the current U.S. Senate, a group needs 61 of the 100 Senators to pass the bill to avoid a filibuster.

 

Alternate Weighing Mechanism:

The winner of this debate should be decided by whichever side can better prove that abolishing or keeping the filibuster will improve the way our government functions.

 

Example of Successful Filibuster

In 2002, the Democratic legislature blocked a bill that was meant to allow drilling for oil in Alaska. Clearly, the negatives of this bill outweighed the bad, and because of this filibuster, we prevented harmful legislation.

 

Refutations:

AT: Majority should get priority - While it is true that majority groups should get priority, they should not be able to completely ignore the minority groups. For example, if a large group can pass a bill without any single minority votes, it essentially negates the purpose of our government. The filibuster insures that the minorities have one last weapon to make sure that a bill that only affects a certain group can not get passed.

1. Assertion: While filibusters are meant to protect the minorities, many times it is used by a very small minority to prevent the passing of a bill approved by the masses.

Reasoning: The purpose of the filibuster is to protect minorities from being overpowered. This means that even if over 50% of the Senate approves of a bill, it could not be passed. Filibusters have been used by a few people to prevent the passing of very important bills.

Evidence: In April 2013, 54 senators supported legislation to institute background checks aimed at stopping would-be buyers who are ineligible to own guns. Polls showed that 90 percent of Americans supported the measure. Yet the bill died because its advocates could not round up the 61votes needed to avoid a filibuster. Another example, is that in 2009, Obama instituted a bill for cutting carbon emissions. In June 2009, the Democrat-controlled House passed a bill, but it stalled in the Senate after failing to garner enough votes to overcome a Republican-led filibuster. Thus, the bill died. In June 2012, the Senate Republican minority blocked passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, with "only" 52 senators voting for the bill and 47 against. The act aimed to decrease the pay gap between women and men by increasing protections for women filing gender-discrimination lawsuits, creating a federal-grant program to improve women's salary-negotiating skills, and rewarding employers who have fair pay practices, among other steps. Yet, because of the filibuster, it could not be passed.

2. Assertion: The threat of the filibuster can preclude a party from attempting to pass a bill, which can ultimately harm the majority of the US.

Reasoning: Filibusters can take up floor time, and can prevent parties from even attempting to pass a bill. The possibility and looming threat of a filibuster has caused parties to not even try to pass a bill because they know that they will not be successful because of the filibuster system. The filibuster has not served the majority and makes it pointless to pass certain bills even when the majority supports them. It has prevented the Senate from being productive and at times paralyzed the success of the Senate.

Evidence: The Atlantic states, “In many cases, Democrats tried and failed to find 60 votes, but there are plenty of other cases where they didn't even try. The way the filibuster works today is that even the threat can stop legislation in its tracks. Because the process takes Senate floor time, the Democratic majority has in recent years preferred to avoid drawn-out confrontations by essentially giving in to threats and moving on to other business. Small wonder that the Senate—and by extension the entire government—has become so paralyzed.”

 

3. Assertion: The filibuster gives too much power to minorities, whereas the majority should receive priority.

Reasoning: If the filibuster continues, majorities will constantly lose. The wellbeing of the majority of people should be placed above the small minority that happens to disagree. Allowing a small few to decide for the majority of people is unfair and contradictory to the ideals of America, where “majority rules.” The filibuster should clearly be abolished because it places the well being of a few people above everyone else.

Evidence: A GOP-led filibuster killed a jobs-and-stimulus bill in October 2011. Fifty-one senators voted in favor of a procedural motion to begin debate on the bill—short of the required 61 votes. The bill was a mix of tax cuts and new spending aimed at spurring job creation. It included $270 billion in payroll-tax cuts and other tax relief, along with $175 billion in new spending on roads, school repairs, and other infrastructure projects, as well as an extension of unemployment benefits and aid to local governments to prevent impending teacher and police layoffs. A majority of senators representing far more than a majority of the American people supported the bill. Yet, because of the filibuster, far more than the majority of the people of America was disappointed by the minority.

 

4. Assertion: The filibuster is commonly abused by politicians, and wastes precious time that could be used to pass legislation.

Reasoning: Many times, politicians use the filibuster to stall legislation while using time consuming techniques. For example, a common tactic is to read a book out-loud in front of the Senate. While it is effective, it stalls important legislation while not accomplishing anything.

Evidence:  During the 14 hours of Senator Ted Cruz’s speech on the Senate floor while trying to stall a bill, he began to read “The Cat in the Hat”, the book written by Dr. Seuss in 1960. This was an excuse to stall Obamacare. Another example, is U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amoto who spoke for over 23 hours in 1986 to stall a military bill. This bill was crucial to putting more money into our defense system, and it almost did not get passed because of this 23 hour filibuster. U.S. Senator Wayne Morse also spoke for 22 hours and 26 minutes in 1953, to stop a bill that was crucial to ending monopolies. This essential bill was almost not passed because of this abusive filibuster by Senator Wayne Morse.

 

CON (3 assertions)

Grabbers:

"The routine use of the filibuster as a matter of everyday politics has transformed the Senate’s legislative process from majority rule into minority tyranny." stated Jean Edward Smith of the New York Times.

“The filibuster prevents the democratically elected majority from doing their work, undermining the majoritarianism so valued by founders like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison,” stated Stephen Levin, American political reformer and author.

 

Define:

Abolish - To formally put an end to

Filibuster- An action such as a prolonged speech that obstructs progress in a legislative assembly. In the current U.S. Senate, a group needs 60 of the 100 Senators to pass the bill to avoid a filibuster.

 

Weighing Mechanism: This debate should be decided by whichever side can prove that the U.S. would either benefit or be harmed by abolishing the filibuster. This also should be weighed, on whichever side can better show that by keeping or abolishing the filibuster, they improve the U.S. government by making it more efficient and fair to pass laws.

 

Rebuttals:

AT: It would be very difficult to abolish the fillibuster - It is true that Senate rules provide provision for the Filibuster. But, these rules are not established in the Constitution. The Constitution only provides the authority to the Senate to establish such rules. This in no way means that the filibuster is protected by the Constitution, as is a very common misconception about the filibuster. The Senate is free, therefore, to vote to change the rules of the Senate and abolish the filibuster without amending the Constitution in any way. Getting rid of the filibuster is, therefore, much easier than many supporters of the filibuster often argue.

 

AT: Forces people to compromise - Regarding the comprise aspect of filibustering, if this is the only way that lawmakers can come to a compromise, then the use of filibustering will only increase, leading to an even slower and less efficient government that the one that we have today that only uses it rarely. Should filibustering be done away with, lawmakers will be forced to seek compromises from less extreme circumstances as they most likely would not be so inactive as to cause a government shutdown. While there have been what some call "close calls" recently in the U.S., these were most likely bluffs in an effort to "turn up the heat."

 

AT: Protect against tyrannies - While filibustering could theoretically prevent terrible, discriminatory, or tyrannical legislation from being enacted, it could also be used to prevent beneficial legislation. Say the majority party wanted to pass a law providing equality to all citizens regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc., but the minority party opposed.

1. Assertion: A filibuster prevents a Senate majority from passing any bills that they want to pass, thus protecting minorities.

Reasoning: Filibuster is an effective tool in protecting the rights of the minority. If the minority party was unable to filibuster, the majority party could simply steamroll its ideas through congress and ignore the will of a large portion of the population. A Senate majority does not necessarily represent a consensus of the people or even of the states. With a filibuster, minorities can prevent bills that do not represent the ideas of the majority of people. It is unfair for a majority of 51% to override 49% of people, because it disregards and ignores nearly a half of the population.

Evidence: Political scientist Gregory Koger wrote "the majority and minoriMitchell succeeded because the people saw no urgency in the proposal. In both cases, political reality prevailed. If the public wants a vote, it tells its representatives. In 1994 Senate Republicans tried to filibuster the Crime Bill. Based on hot flashes from home, more than 60 senators perceived that the bill was popular, so the filibuster was broken quickly. The same thing happened to the Motor Voter Bill, the National Service Bill, and five out of six presidential appointments. If any proposal has substantial public support, a couple of cloture votes will kill the filibuster. The political reality is: frivolous filibusters do not succeed. The filibuster can also prevent terrible, discriminatory or tyrannical legislation from being enacted by a majority.

2. Assertion: Filibusters keep our Senate as an area where debate is more strongly encouraged and differentiates it from the House of Representatives where it is not as strongly touted. By not abolishing the filibuster, we are keeping a tradition and political balance

Reasoning: The system set up in the constitution is not meant to encourage quick change, and in fact the separation of powers is intended to make legislating on controversial issues difficult because important issues can affect our nation and need to be thoroughly discussed. A classic story involves Thomas Jefferson asking George Washington about the purpose of the Senate. Washington in turn asked him, "Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" "To cool it," Jefferson answered. To this Washington said; "Even so, we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it." The framers of the Constitution intended the Senate to cool legislation by being a more deliberative body than the House. It was smaller, members were older, Senators were elected for longer terms, and elections were staggered and decided by state legislatures. Having the filibuster is an integral part of the filibuster because legislation can be slowly discussed and each side can be heard more clearly when it is debated over a longer period of time. It is essential that at least our Senate can be a place for thorough debate to occur while the House passes bills at much faster pace. The house sets limits on the amount of time each representative can speak because it generally has a more sporadic group, while the Senate is supposed to be the balance to that of carefully pondering the ideas and talking it over, which is why the US should not abolish the filibuster.

Evidence: Today, a more polarized Senate, with almost no ideological overlap between the parties, has accompanied, and most likely produced, a more fractious process. Changing the rules would treat one symptom -- delay and gridlock -- at the cost of exacerbating the underlying diseases: excessive partisanship and ideological extremism. According to our own Constitution, it it the unique function of the Senate to act as a check upon the executive branch, which it could not do without the freedom of the debate that the filibuster allows. Ezra Klein of the NY Times found a study by Barabara Sinclair showing that filibusters are used on 80% of major bills, showing why eliminating it now would do more damage than ever.

3. Assertion: Filibusters promote compromise.

Reasoning: If a filibuster can trigger a compromise between Senators from the two different parties, then it stands to reason both majority and minority members can more easily use the tactic to shape a piece of legislation. The use of the filibuster can certainly improve the chances of a compromise when either party supports a certain piece of legislation, even when a handful of Senators are displeased with a provision or two. In such cases, a party’s holdouts—likely moderates—can pledge their votes for cloture in exchange for striking a portion or adding something to the legislation. Either way, when filibusters are used, compromise is often achieved.

Evidence: Former Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove and former Senate staffer Richard Arenberg, in their recently published apologia, Defending the Filibuster: The Soul of the Senate, note that the filibuster does in fact bring ideologically divergent Senators to the table. They noted that the ability of an individual or group of Senators to halt legislation spurs on a bill’s sponsor on to find a counterpart in the opposing party to work with him for passage. Indeed, a lawmaker will attempt to find a colleague as far as possible on the opposite end of the political spectrum to support her or him, since that improves the likelihood that the Senators between them will support the measure. Such overtures, Dove and Arenberg say, are done at the very beginning of the legislative process, so this effect of the filibuster is not always appreciated.