The glacial pace at which Congress gets things done — or, perhaps, not done — frustrates the public. And it sometimes frustrates the 100 senators and 435 House members.
That frustration bubbled to the surface this week as the Senate considered legislatiob to essentially end the filibuster, a parliamentary procedure used in the U.S. Senate to obstruct passage of legislation or approval of executive and judicial nominees.
But on Thursday, Republican and Democrats in the Senate made a wise decision to reduce the use of the filibuster, not end it.
We see the filibuster as an important safeguard to ensure the minority has some voice in decision making. Filibusters — the act of a senator talking continuously so a vote can’t be taken — can be ended only with 60 votes.
Since the current Senate consists of 51 Democrats, 47 Republicans and two independents, the majority Democrats must sway some Republicans and independents to their side.
Sure, that’s frustrating for the majority party and those who agree with its stand. Liberal groups such as Common Cause have been advocates for eliminating the filibuster so 51 votes would rule the Senate.
But would liberals feel the same way about this change if Republicans were to take control? Unlikely.
Long-standing procedural rules such as the filibuster should not be changed every time the political wind shifts from right to left (and vice versa).
With 51 votes, the majority party might just herd their people together to get whatever they want,” said Joseph I. Lieberman, a former senator from Connecticut who was elected as a Democrat and Independent. “But there is another dynamic. It empowers small groups of people to affect the outcome.”
The reason the filibuster is now in the public spotlight is because Republicans have used it to block confirmation of some of President Obama’s nominations.
Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise to limit filibusters in some confirmations. Once the Senate has voted to limit debate on certain nominations — federal district court judges and administration posts below Cabinet level — the limit will be set at two hours. Debate is now limited to 30 hours.
And in other instances the number of opportunities to filibuster will be reduced from three to one.
The compromise is acceptable and in the spirit of cooperation (the legislation was broken into two pieces and approved by votes of 78-16 and 86-9) gives hope more bipartisanship will be seen in the future.
No, we don’t expect the singing of “Kumbaya” around a campfire, but any progress in cooperation will be an improvement.