Talking Democracy to Death
Elliot L. Richardson
If the Senate operated by majority
rule, Congress would have passed a campaign finance reform law last year. It also would
have adopted the first major telecommunications reform law in 50 years, reined in the
giveaway of taxpayer-owned gold to private mining companies and perhaps adopted a
compromise health-care reform.
Each of these bills was killed in Congress because a filibuster frenzy has made majority rule the exception rather than the rule in the Senate. Filibusters also took place on school funding, toxic-waste cleanup and other legislation.
When senators filibuster, using parliamentary tactics to block the Senate from voting, they turn democracy on its head. Since the Senate's current rule require three-fifths of the Senate to break a filibuster, 41 members can hold the Senate hostage, even if 59 are ready to take action. The majority must either allow the bill to die, or pay whatever legislative ransom is demanded -- sometimes a multimillion dollar handout for a senator's favorite college or highway, sometimes changes in policy.
The issue is not whether we are for or against whatever bill is the filibuster's victim. There are times when a nation's future may depend on whether its citizens can rise above policy differences and take a stand for democracy. This is such a time. At stake is our government's ability to make decisions and take action.
That is why I and 25 of our nation's most respected leaders -- both Republicans like former Sens. Barry Goldwater, Charles McC. Mathias and Robert Stafford and Democrats like former Sens. William Proxmire, Birch Bayh and Gaylord Nelson -- have launched the Action, Not Gridlock campaign to sound an alarm. A filibuster frenzy gravely threatens our government's ability to act to meet the nation's pressing challenges.
We have had more filibusters from 1990 to 1994 than in the Senate's first 140 years combined. Today, the ever-present threat of a filibuster, whether by Republicans or Democrats, affects nearly every issue.
In May 1994, for example, our government was forced to give away $10 billion of gold on federal land. Why? Because filibuster threats blocked efforts to fix the Gold Rush-era mining law requiring this giveaway and dozens more in the months ahead, giveaways of billions of dollars that come out of our pockets as taxpayers.
The Founding Fathers would be appalled to learn that the framework they labored so valiantly to construct had been perverted by the filibuster.
To be sure, there must be ample opportunity for expression of minority views, and perhaps even additional incentive for a majority to seek broader agreement. Some have suggested, for example, that the number of senators needed to break a filibuster might decline from 60 to 51 as a filibuster dragged on. But using the fiction of "extended debate" as a means of blocking action on urgent problems is a corruption of the democratic process.
Senators need not await a rules change to regain their self-restraint and their respect for the democratic process. Just as we forswear using chemical weapons in war, senators should forswear using filibusters in legislative combat. Such scorched-earth tactics may win a battle but leave the democratic process in ruins.
Each of us has a choice. We can choose gridlock and policy by ransom, or we can choose democracy.
Action, Not Gridlock says to our senators: We pay you to make decisions not to stand in the way and make no decisions. So vote for or against legislation, but respect democracy and majority rule. Give the Senate back its right to vote, and give Americans back their right to action. No more filibusters.
Elliot L. Richardson served in three Cabinet positions under President Richard Nixon and as a special diplomatic representative under Presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton.
As the first order of business in the new Senate in January 1995, three senators introduced a reform measure that would have allowed filibusters to slow legislation, but not stop majority rule. With Republican opposition, the proposal was defeated 76-19. Early 1997 likely is the next chance for filibuster reform; for information, contact Action, Not Gridlock at: (202) 383-5900.
Table of Contents