Common Cause Files Lawsuit to End Senate Gridlock
- Dale Eisman
Watchdog group is joined by Members of Congress and potential DREAM Act beneficiaries in a constitutional challenge to the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule
WASHINGTON, DC – Common Cause filed a lawsuit today asking the U.S. District Court in Washington to declare that the Senate’s filibuster rule is unconstitutional and violates the core American principle of majority rule.
Once a rarely used maneuver to allow extended debate, the filibuster now is routinely employed to block debate on hundreds of critical issues, including tackling the student loan debt crisis, revitalizing the economy, requiring disclosure of campaign spending, and filling court vacancies. The suit charges that the rule is unconstitutional and was never contemplated by the nation’s founders.
“Most Americans have lost confidence in Congress and its ability to act in the best interest of the American public,” said Bob Edgar, president and CEO of the government watchdog group. “They have good reason. Congress is mired in gridlock as partisan factions put political advantage over the national interest. Requiring 60 votes to do anything in the Senate is a big part of the problem. It creates a disincentive to compromise, and allows powerful special interests to call the shots behind closed doors.”
“America can’t wait any longer for Congress to tackle our nation’s problems,” Edgar said. “We can’t afford to let a minority of U.S. senators block action. It’s wrong, and it’s unconstitutional. It’s time to restore majority rule in Washington and get the country moving again.”
The 52-page complaint argues that the filibuster allows senators representing as little as 11 percent of the population to prevent votes in the Senate; that violates the Constitution, which envisioned majority rule except where specifically stated otherwise. Once used to ensure open debate and deliberation, the filibuster rule is now used to actually stifle debate and make a mockery of the legislative process.
The complaint notes that the filibuster has even kept the Senate from reforming its own rules, because any attempt at reform has itself been blocked by a filibuster.
“It’s clear the framers intended that a supermajority be required only in rare and special cases, like impeachment, ratifying a treaty, or overriding a presidential veto,” said Emmet J. Bondurant, founding partner of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, Common Cause’s lead attorney and a member of the organization’s National Governing Board. “It was not meant to block debate.”
The National Law Journal named Mr. Bondurant one of the top ten trial lawyers in the United States. He has litigated critical civil rights and constitutional law cases over his career.
Plaintiffs in the case also include members of Congress and three promising young people whose future in America is being held hostage because of the filibuster of the DREAM Act.
Congressional plaintiffs include U.S. Reps John Lewis, D-GA., Michael Michaud, D-ME., Hank Johnson, D-GA, and Keith Ellison, D-MN, all of whom have seen legislation they sponsored win overwhelming bipartisan support in the House only to be denied debate and a vote in the Senate because of the filibuster.
Plaintiffs Erika Andiola, Ceasar Vargas and Celso Mireles were brought as children to the U.S. from Mexico by their parents. Each earned a college degree with honors and would be on track to become a U.S. citizen under an immigration reform measure, the DREAM Act. Passed in the House of Representatives, and supported by a majority of Senators, the DREAM Act was killed when just 41 senators refused to end the filibuster blocking it.
“These young adults are ready and eager to contribute to their adopted country, our country – one of them even wants to put his life on the line as a member of the Marine Corps — but a minority of senators refuses to let the majority act on a bill that would open up their path to citizenship,” Edgar said. “The Constitution does not give 41 senators a veto over the legislative process.”
The filibuster rule was also used to prevent a vote on the DISCLOSE Act, a key anti-corruption measure backed by Common Cause that would have required full disclosure of spending to influence U.S. elections. The DISCLOSE Act passed in the House and had the support of a majority of senators.
Common Cause had hoped a reform effort led early this year by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Tom Udall (D-NM) would persuade senators to fix the filibuster rule without a court fight. “But we’ve come to the point where it takes 60 votes just to get routine legislation onto the Senate floor for discussion,” said Edgar. “The filibuster has even been used to block an annual defense authorization bill, with provides badly needed raises for our troops.”
“This is not what the founders had in mind. We have no choice but to ask the courts to step in and enforce the Constitution as a matter of law,” Edgar said.
A revised rule that permits extended debate but guarantees a simple majority vote at the end of the day would solve the constitutional problem, Bondurant said.
The Common Cause suit traces the history of the filibuster and its transformation from a device that once guaranteed open and robust Senate debate to one that stifles discussion and blocks action on critical issues.