“There was a time when filibusters were symbolic of a principled stand…a David standing up to the Goliath. I think Strom Thurmond’s filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 took the sheen of nobility off the filibuster, but what constitutes a filibuster these days is not at all recognizable from the Mr. Smith or the Sen. Thurmond version. And it’s clear, looking at this graph that the Republicans have upended the intent of the filibuster rule to basically break down the Senate and launch the virtual rule of the minority.” — Nicole Belle
— Eric Harris and Jonathan Backer
“When the Senate rules create a status quo where justice is so frequently deferred or denied, the people start to lose faith in our democratic institutions, apathy is engendered, and the health of our democracy is threatened.”
— Rabbi David Saperstein
Rabbi Steven Fox, Chief Executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; and Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism today released a letter urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to enact sensible filibuster reform when the Senate convenes for a new Session on tomorrow.
The full text of the letter follows:
Dear Senator Reid and Senator McConnell,
On behalf of the 1,800 rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the national Reform rabbinical association, we write to advocate sensible filibuster reforms.
During the 111th Congress, a challenge to the smooth functioning of democracy, which had been growing evident for some time, came into stark relief. A minority of Senators invoked cloture 63 times-the most of any other Congress, indeed, more than the sum total of instances between the creation of the modern filibuster at the beginning of the 20th century and 1982. Rather than facilitate a cautious and deliberate legislative process, the filibuster in its current incarnation has created gridlock and has weakened the government’s ability to respond to the needs of its citizens. In a Dec. 18 letter, 56 Democratic Senators called on you to take steps to curb this abuse of the filibuster. We are encouraged as well that a respected returning Republican Senator, Dan Coats, has also called for reform. We ask you to heed their call, and work together. Reform cannot succeed without bipartisan support.
Let us be clear: the filibuster is a vital and necessary tool of the minority. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) has consistently opposed attempts to eliminate the right of a minority of Senators to block extreme legislation and nominees. The CCAR has also supported efforts to reduce misuse of the procedural tactic when it occurs. During the 1950s and 1960s, a minority of legislators used the filibuster to prevent civil rights legislation from receiving a vote before the U.S. Senate. For this reason, the CCAR supported successful reform of Senate rules in 1975 to lower the threshold for cloture from a two-thirds to a three-fifths majority.
During the 111th Congress, the filibuster denied the DREAM Act an up or down vote in the Senate. The chamber never even debated legislation addressing climate change because of the mere threat of the filibuster. While many factors were at play, the filibuster or threat thereof diminished the Senate’s ability to respond to the needs of unemployed Americans struggling amid a prolonged jobs crisis, led to a health care reform law with fewer cost control mechanisms, and produced Wall Street reform with less ability to address the root causes of the financial meltdown. Dozens of other important issues never came before Congress over the past two years because filibusters consumed so much of the Senate calendar. When the Senate rules create a status quo where justice is so frequently deferred or denied, the people start to lose faith in our democratic institutions, apathy is engendered, and the health of our democracy is threatened.
The ability of a truly dedicated minority to oppose the most extreme instances of legislative excess or of judicial or executive appointments must be preserved. But the current rules have evolved to a point where a 60-vote threshold in the Senate is the norm on important issues, not the exception. Some simple changes currently being considered have the potential to more effectively accomplish the goals the CCAR has long advocated. That is, they could promote a more restrained and responsible use of the filibuster, while preserving minority rights in the Senate:
- Continuous debate-a substantial number of senators should be required to sign a petition in order to initiate a filibuster and members should be forced to speak continuously in order to sustain it. The onus should also be on the minority to maintain a filibuster rather than just on the majority to break it.
- Eliminating anonymous holds-the filibuster was designed to allow a minority to slow down the legislative process in order to make its case to the public. Anonymous holds accomplish only gridlock, allowing the minority to conceal itself behind a cloak of procedure without justifying its obstruction.
- Fewer opportunities to filibuster-the minority currently has the ability to filibuster the initial motion to debate legislation, amendments, and the final vote. Duplicative filibusters clog the Senate calendar and prevent the legislative branch from doing the people’s work. The minority should get one opportunity to block a piece of legislation through procedural tactics.
- Strengthen the right of the minority to offer amendments-supporters of the filibuster argue that it is a necessary tactic when the majority offers insufficient opportunities to offer amendments. But, currently, more amendments offer more opportunities for filibuster. Allowing each side to offer amendments with a limited amount of time for debating each would circumvent this problem and provide more opportunities for minority input.
We urge you to consider these and other ideas to limit abuse of the filibuster. The cause of social justice depends on a legislative branch that is responsive to the will of the people while mindful of minority rights. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us at 202-387-2800.
- Rabbi Steven Fox, Chief Executive, Central Conference of American Rabbis
- Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, President, Central Conference of American Rabbis
- Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism