The History of Filibuster Reform

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The actual process is getting increasingly complicated -- the Senate's first "legislative day" might take a couple of weeks, for instance -- but Senate Democrats look to be pushing forward with their effort to reform the filibuster. Cue shock and horror. It's "a radical changing of the Senate's rules," writes Brian Darling, "a naked power grab." Democrats used much the same language in 2005, when Sen. Bill Frist sought to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominations.

These majority-driven changes are power grabs, at least insofar as they're attempting to give the majority more power to pass their agenda. But they're rarely radical. The Senate has a long tradition of revising its rules. Senators were originally elected by state legislatures, but we tired of that in 1913 and ratified the 17th amendment, turning that power over to the voters. And the Senate kept changing in the years after that.

Generally, governmental dysfunction is frowned on, and efforts to eliminate it are embraced. But in the Senate, such things take on the sepia-toned glow of Tradition. Imagine if no agency decisions could be made without 60 percent of all employees in agreement, and even then, the decision would first have to be debated for two days and then debated for a further 30 hours after the vote. The rule would be used as grist for sweeping and constant critiques of federal inefficiency. But that same rule, applied to the Senate, has many defenders....

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