Sen. Harkin on Filibuster Reform


By Ryan McNeely

Last Monday, Sen. Harkin (D-IA) delivered an important lecture at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law entitled “Filibuster Reform: Curbing Abuse to Prevent Minority Tyranny in the Senate.” He outlined his specific plan for filibuster reform, which would gradually lower the threshold for Senate action from 60 votes to 51 votes over a period of eight days. Harkin has credibility on this issue, as he first proposed these reforms in 1995 when Democrats were in the minority.

While Harkin conceded that “neither party has clean hands” and that the escalation of cloture votes has become “an arms race,” Harkin argued that conservatives have an ideological interest in portraying government as ineffective. “Some members of the minority party are so reflexively anti-government that in their mind, there can be no compromise.”

The use of the filibuster has increased with each successive Congress, but Harkin made clear that some of the more egregious filibuster abuses — such as holding up a nominee for months only to confirm that nominee unanimously — are not the inevitable outcome of natural Senate evolution but rather the result of calculated decisions by the GOP leadership:

At this point, I do want to digress for a moment and discuss the current Republican minority. Much of the fault lies with the Minority Leader. In the past, Republican leaders have had to deal with extremists in their ranks who wanted to block everything – Jesse Helms is a good example. But, leaders, including Bob Dole, Trent Lott and Bill Frist, while giving members like Helms a long leash, at some point said “enough!” They made clear that the Senator was acting outside the goalposts and that it would not be tolerated. What is different, today, is that the Minority Leader is not willing to constrain the most extreme elements within his caucus.

The key here is that Sen. Shelby can’t block debate on every single executive branch nominee without the tacit approval of Mitch McConnell. McConnell has made a conscious choice to prevent the government from functioning for rank short-term political gain. All calls for Barack Obama to “compromise” with the Senate GOP caucus should be placed in this context.