Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Keystone Is A Reality Check For Democrats Who Oppose The Senate Filibuster Rule

Yesterday, Democrats cheered when the Senate filibustered a bill that would have granted approval to construction of the Keystone pipeline. A majority of Senators voted for the bill. In fact 59 senators voted for the bill. But since the Senate has a filibuster rule that allows 41 Senators to keep a bill from coming to the floor the bill was defeated. This vote really presents Democrats with a reality check on the use of the filibuster.

For years, Democrats have decried the use of the filibuster by Republicans, and rightly so. In fact, on the same day that the Senate blocked the Keystone bill, Republicans used the filibuster to block a Democratic proposal to overhaul the NSA's program for the bulk collection of telephone data. During President Obama's years in office countless bills have been blocked by a minority of Senators and Democrats have rightly been critical. But now, the shoe is on the other foot and in the next two years we will see more and more bills proposed by Republicans that the Democrats will filibuster.

Contrary to what some assert, the filibuster was never intended to be used in this way. Yes, the Senate was designed in part to be the "cooling saucer" that would be able to check the "unrestrained passions" of the House by providing each State, no matter how large or small, an equal voice in deciding whether laws should be enacted. To give effect to that intent, Senate rules allowed for unlimited debate, even by a small minority of senators, a process referred to as the filibuster. The filibuster was established to allow a minority of senators to delay legislation. However, the filibuster was not intended to allow a minority of Senators to prohibit the consideration of legislation and thereby block it indefinitely.

Many, such as myself, would like to see the Senate rules changed to allow unlimited debate by a minority but not permit that same minority to indefinitely block the consideration of legislation. It is wrong that a minority of Senators, sometimes representing a very small minority of the United States population can keep popular legislation from moving forward. But in doing so we must also accept that there will be circumstances in which terrible legislation will be advanced by a majority of Republican Senators. We should willing to accept that fact with the knowledge that if there is a Democratic House the bill can be blocked, and if there is a Democratic President the bill can be vetoed. And if not, if all branches of the government are controlled by Republicans, we must accept the outcome.

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