America Can’t Wait: Common Cause Calls on the Senate to Fix the Filibuster, Eliminate “Holds” and Stop Blocking Progress

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  • Dale Eisman

Washington, DC– Common Cause called on the Senate today to reform its filibuster rules, end “holds” and get moving on the big issues facing the nation.

Congressional action on a wide range of pressing issues has been stalled out in the Senate thanks to unprecedented use of the filibuster and holds on hundreds of bills, nominations and appointments. This week, the minority used its 50th filibuster of the session to try to block extension of unemployment benefits, after Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) placed a hold on the measure before the Easter recess, leaving 200,000 families without a paycheck while Congress went on vacation.

“The minority has engaged in unprecedented abuse of Senate rules to grind progress to a halt,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. “Sixty-vote supermajorities are no longer the exception to the rule but the rule itself. It’s time to stop the partisan posturing and get moving. With all that’s left to do this year, America cannot afford this rampant obstructionism.”

“We all watched as the Senate tied itself in knots for over a year trying to come up with a supermajority to pass health insurance reform before finally resorting to majority rule through the reconciliation process,” Edgar said. “We can’t let abuse of the rules stop Congress from tackling jobs and the economy, protecting consumers, preventing future financial crises and putting America on the path to energy independence.”

Adopted in 1917, the Senate’s filibuster rule was used sparingly throughout most of the 20th Century, and until the 1960s was used primarily to block civil rights legislation. But in the past five years, the current Republican minority has abused the rule to the point that 60 votes has become the de facto threshold for any meaningful action. The number of cloture motions required to get a vote has more than doubled since 2006 and countless “stealth filibusters” – where the minority threatens to filibuster without actually having to do anything – have been used to prevent action on scores of substantive measures.

“A sixty-vote threshold is not what the founding fathers intended,” Edgar said. “If the founders intended a supermajority requirement to pass bills, they would have included it in the Constitution, just like they explicitly required a supermajority to override a Presidential veto. The Senate created the rule, and now it needs to end it,” Edgar said.

Common Cause’s National Governing Board reexamined the group’s position on the filibuster this winter in light of growing abuse of the rule. After a thorough review of the rule’s history, constitutionality and current practice, the board concluded that the filibuster rule is unconstitutional and counterproductive, reversing the organization’s 2005 position. The board’s Policy Committee found that filibuster abuse has actually increased partisanship in the Senate, encouraged counterproductive deal-making with individual senators, and led to gridlock. Common Cause concluded that the filibuster must go in order to make government work and restore public confidence in Congress’ ability to tackle the critical issues facing the nation.

Common Cause is supporting measures introduced by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Tom Udall (D-NM) to reform the practice. Senator Harkin’s bill, which was originally introduced when the Democrats were in the minority, would gradually reduce the number of votes needed to end debate (from 60, to 57, to 54 and then 51) over a number of days. Senator Udall’s proposal would allow the Senate to change its rule by a majority vote when a new Senate is seated in January, instead of the 67 votes currently necessary.

Common Cause also called on the Senate to eliminate the informal practice of allowing single senators to put a “hold” on bills and nominations – often in secret. Senators Jim Bunning (R-KY) and Coburn recently drew national attention to this dysfunctional and undemocratic perk by placing holds over the last two months on the extension of unemployment benefits. Senator Bunning also had a hold on an agriculture nomination because he wanted a World Trade Organization complaint filed against Canada for banning candy flavored cigarettes, produced – no surprise – in his home state of Kentucky.

“America can’t wait for progress while senators play partisan games,” Edgar said. “It’s time to break the gridlock and put Congress back to work.”