The Urgency of a Senate Rule Change

senate gridlockPundits, public figures and the politically-oriented have awakened to the fact that a Senate procedural rule is undermining democracy in Congress.

Only those who spend too much time with Roberts Rules of Order can follow the tortured route through which a principled respect for free and full debate led to a situation in which it takes agreement from 60% of the Senators to bring a bill to the floor, which in effect means that it takes a supermajority to pass all legislation, originating in the House or Senate.

Because of the compromise which gave states two senators regardless of their population, the notion has arisen that the Founders intended the Senate to be undemocratic. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison repeatedly reaffirmed the importance of majority vote in the Federalist Papers. The Constitution itself specifies the three instances in which a two-thirds vote is required.

The public weighed in to make the Senate more democratic when it passed the 17th amendment requiring the direct election of senators in 1913. This replaced the earlier provision that the state legislatures would name them.

With great gusto, the Republicans have used the so-called “invisible filibuster” 84 times since Obama was elected president, more than the total of all filibusters in the Congresses of the 1950s and 1960s.

This abuse has aroused those paying attention, but changing Rule 22 which introduced the painless filibuster will be like pulling an elephant out of hat. Too many senators on both sides of the aisle consider Senate traditions as holy writ, even though they’ve changed this rule three times. Much is made of the bad legislation super majorities have blocked without considering the many good laws that never get passed — or how the difficulty of law-making in America feeds into voters’ frustration and alienation.

Still the opening of the 112th Congress presents an opportunity for course correction, and some Senators are actually talking up reform proposals.

More than 300 historians, political scientists, and law profs from colleges and universities throughout the country have signed a petition calling upon their Senators “to restore majority rule to the United States Senate by revising the rules that now require the concurrence of 60 members before legislation can be brought to the floor.”

Stay tuned. We’ll know on January 5th whether the reformers can bring enough colleagues along to redeem democratic rule in the United States.

Joyce Appleby

Joyce Appleby is Professor Emerita at UCLA, co-editor of the History News Service, and a member of HNN’s advisory board.

Republished with permission from History News Network.


  1. George A. Crackuh says

    Remodeling Senate rules would be a lot less critical if we had not allowed the federal government over the past 80 years to over-centralize political power and become so massively intrusive in all our lives.

    The better solution is to need these leaders less.

    Let’s look continually for ways to push our our political decision-making closer to the people; outward from DC to the states; then outward from the statehouses to the counties and townships.

  2. says

    The Republicans threaten to strike back when they are in the majority. But is anyone so naive (after the experience of the past two years) as to think they will not change the rules themselves the first chance they get, regardless of what happens this year?

    It is a little scary, since they will inevitably regain power at some point; but that is just the way democracy works. It goes with the territory. Right now we are about one or two votes away from a Supreme Court disaster, that could block progressive change for decades. Republicans will do everything in their power to block liberal appointments now, until they can lock in a 5-Scalia majority next time they get a chance.

    The best we can hope for is that a functional Senate and Congress may somehow improve the overall political climate in the country, and lead us away from the precipice we seem to be approaching. If we don’t act firmly now, we may never have another chance.

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