Senate Republicans Must ‘Nuke’ The Filibuster

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Rob Chambers Vice President, AFA Action
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Republicans’ choice of Donald Trump as their presidential candidate constituted an utter repudiation of the Washington political establishment. Conservative voters are realizing that too many candidates chant the conservative mantra during campaigns, but then embrace the agenda of the Swamp (the political, bureaucratic and corporate elites) once they get to Washington.

Voters are fed up.

But despite Trump’s victory, the establishmentarians are still prevailing on issues that fuel the passions of the grassroots—controlling illegal immigration, defunding Planned Parenthood, decentralizing education policy-making, appointing judges and repealing Obamacare, to mention a few. Even if good legislation passes the House, it dies in the Senate.

For example, in 2015, Congress introduced a pro-life bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. It passed the House along party lines, but the bill failed in the Senate because of minority Democratic opposition. Even though a majority of Republican senators (54-42) voted to advance the legislation for debate, Democratic obstructionists killed the bill by preventing the bill from reaching a supermajority of 60 votes.

Last week, the House introduced this same pro-life bill banning abortion after 20 weeks. However, the bill is almost certain to have the same fate as it did two years ago. Why? Because 30 establishmentarian Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), are in favor of keeping the filibuster rule. The filibuster, Senate Rule 22, is known as invoking “cloture.” This rule requires 60 votes to advance legislation for consideration and to end debate.

Although Senate Republican leadership will blame the Democrats for blocking the 20-week abortion ban, what the GOP leadership refuses to admit is that they have the votes to set aside the 60-vote rule in favor of a simple majority vote. The Senate Republican majority has the potential to live up to the GOP pro-life platform, but 30 Senate Republicans insist on choosing rules and sacrificing the opportunity to save unborn lives.

This Republican hypocrisy and Democratic obstruction must end now.

In congressional testimony, Brookings Institution senior fellow Sarah Binder noted that the filibuster was not part of the original design of the Senate, nor does it stand on constitutional principle. In fact, both the House and Senate rulebooks in 1789 included a “previous question” motion through which a simple majority could cut off debate and bring a matter to a vote. The House kept its motion, but the Senate took it off the books.

According to Binder, the Senate did so in 1806, not due to a grand re-design of the procedure but in response to an 1805 recommendation by Aaron Burr that the rulebook be simplified. Even so, the senators did not actually filibuster until 1837. Still, from then until the Civil War, there were very few filibusters.

Toward the end of the century, the use of the filibuster increased with the advent of more controversial, post-war legislation. Facing the threat of a filibuster, controversial legislation was often dropped rather than debated.

In 1917, frustrated by Republican senators who were defeating his war plans, progressive President Woodrow Wilson and his allies in the Senate pushed for a solution. The result was Rule 22 that allowed debate to be ended with 67 votes. Thus it remained until 1975, when the Democratic majority again changed Senate rules to lower the number of votes needed to advance legislation over Republican objections, from 67 to 60.

The 60-vote requirement is aggravated by another recent development—an increased willingness to apply the filibuster to pretty much any issue, large or small. Filibusters in the past were reserved to expressing disagreement on issues of momentous importance, such as those involving national security or civil rights. One reason was that a filibustering senator had to take the floor and keep the floor, for hours at a time, to prevent a vote. Such a senator thus had to risk the political fallout of appearing unreasonably obstructionist. But now, a senator need only announce the intention to filibuster, and the 60-vote rule goes into effect with no further action on the senator’s part. It’s a risk-free means of ensuring that nothing meaningful ever gets passed.

From the citizen’s standpoint, perhaps the worst aspect of the rule is that it allows senators to hide. For example, in today’s environment when a conservative bill needs at least eight Democratic votes to pass, Republican senators can vote for it with enthusiasm, knowing it’s dead no matter what they do. Then they can trumpet their conservative bona fides on the campaign trail, secure in the knowledge that the powerful special interests will continue to thrive in the swamp.

This impairs the ability of voters to drain the Senate swamp through elections. If the 60-vote rule were eliminated so that every senator’s vote actually made a difference, the jig would be up. Represent either your constituents or your cronies—no more deception.

The most common argument that conservatives advance against eliminating the filibuster is that Republicans would regret it when they inevitably return to the minority in the future. But the Democrats have already used the so-called “nuclear option” of eliminating the supermajority requirement—ending debate on President Obama’s judicial nominees. And former Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) already promised to change Senate precedent by nuking the 60-vote rule and switching to majority vote when they return to power. So the idea that the Democrats will show restraint if the Republicans do is simply delusional.

And what about the argument that the filibuster allows necessary debate on important issues? The short answer is, no it doesn’t. The filibuster is no longer about debate at all, because “filibusters” occur offstage—with not a syllable spoken.

Let’s get back to the representative government envisioned by our Founders. End the filibuster.

Rob Chambers is vice president of AFA Action, the governmental affairs affiliate of the American Family Association that educates, encourages and mobilizes Christians to engage the political process, as elected officials help form legislation that has lasting effects. Chambers will be a featured speaker at the 2017 Values Voter Summit this weekend in Washington, D.C., for a panel discussion titled, “Drain the Swamp.”

Views expressed in op-eds are not the views of The Daily Caller.