Today's Paper Newsletters LEARNS Guide Asa Hutchinson 2024 Today's Photos Public Notices Crime Distribution Locations Obits Puzzles Digital FAQ Razorback Sports

HOYT PURVIS: The filibuster's future

Process entangled in path to normalization by Hoyt Purvis | February 17, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

I am asked, with increasing frequency, when things are going to "get back to normal." There are certainly some encouraging developments in moving forward with vaccines, and the opening of some public institutions, including some schools and businesses. There is also uncertainty, which we already have in abundance.

For many, normalization is the pronounced aim and goal in this pandemic era.

There are many dimensions to the covid relief effort -- politics, economics, business, education, legal provisions -- as part of getting us all back to "normal."

In Washington, what's normal involves diverse but related topics and somewhat cloudy terms -- from reconciliation to cloture to impeachment to Trump rallies and the brutally torrid scenes from the insurrectionist videos. We struggle to reverse the tide that has swept over us for almost a year, and includes the maniacal events of Jan. 6.

At first glance it might appear normalization would have have nothing to do with funding for covid relief. It does, however, because it becomes part of the structure and process that governs legislative action, including funding allocation. Democrats are pushing ahead with plans to pass a covid rescue package through a process called budget reconciliation that sidesteps the 60-vote threshold that makes a filibuster possible. Reconciliation is intended to rapidly advance fiscal or budgetary matters, considering them apart from more routine legislation.

Today's Senate differs significantly from the Senate of not-too-many years ago as we have been living increasingly with dysfunctional legislative bodies.

Congress has been at a low point in recent years, where a spirit of comity (mutual respect or civility) previously prevailed much of the time. I worked more than a dozen years on the Senate staff, primarily for the leadership, and I closely observed Congress long before and long after my time there. I witnessed the impact the filibuster could have. The rule can bring opposing parties to the table for compromise.

Ending a filibuster on most normal legislation requires 60 votes, according to current Senate Rule XXII (22). At this point, those who want to continue the filibuster option are far short of that 60-vote standard. Changing any of the Senate's Standing Rules entails a procedural vote of 67 yeas, a high mark. But the Senate conducts much of its business based on precedent. In fact, there is a hefty volume of Senate precedent that governs Senate practice.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has been an outspoken critic of efforts to abandon or further restrict the filibuster and may be a key figure in determining the filibuster's future. Cotton recently introduced an amendment to the budget resolution to require 60-vote support for adding seats to the Supreme Court, which would create the possibility of filibuster on that issue. Democrats beat back his move as not germane to a budget resolution in violation of the Budget Act of 1972.

Filibusters, long used by individuals or groups of senators to block or delay action in the Senate, have figured importantly in congressional affairs, perhaps best known in resistance to civil rights legislation. Further, filibusters have become entangled with that budget reconciliation process, designed to allow rapid action on certain high-priority tax-and-spending legislation.

Having gained majorities in the House and Senate, even if razor thin, those in the '70s and '80s who wanted to end or severely restrict use of the filibuster, mostly Senate Democrats led by Majority Leader Robert Byrd, established new procedures, giving the simple majority in the Senate a stronger hand.

The ongoing skirmish over the special legislative process of reconciliation will either allow the filibuster to stand as is, or it will abolish the maneuver and allow passage of bills with a 51-vote majority. The answer will help determine the way government functions in the coming two years -- whether toward normalization or at least a version of normalization. Clearly, some of the funding for covid-19 relief purposes comes under the reconciliation process and, in turn, can hamper efforts to proceed to normalization. Here, things get more complex and sometimes bogged down in legislative gobbledygook.

For many years, the Senate allowed extended debate, but that resulted in an unwieldy process. In some cases, it led to Sen. Byrd, the longest-serving member in the Senate who died in 2010, to come up with another parliamentary maneuver to enable the Senate to function more efficiently. In 1974, Congress approved the Congressional Budget Act with reconciliation, which allowed for expedited consideration of certain revenue, spending or related fiscal matters.

The Byrd rule, however, prohibits the Senate from considering extraneous matter as part of a reconciliation process. And the Byrd rule can only be waived by a 3/5 (60) majority vote of the Senate. Ending a filibuster can involve invoking cloture by requiring a vote to cut off debate.

As a Senate staff member and deputy director of the Senate Majority Policy Committee, I had an inside view of the battle over the future of the filibuster. Determining that future can have major impact on procedural action and when and how the nation's legislative process moves toward normalization.

The Democrats favor a relief plan to provide up to $1,400 directly to households, increase vaccine distribution and childcare, and raise the minimum wage to $15. Arkansans in Congress have generally backed party-line opposition to that. It would require a 2/3 vote to get rid of the filibuster on the matter. Senate Republicans have used the filibuster with its super-majority requirement. This all comes amid budgetary and economic turmoil. And one year after we saw the first signs of the pandemic.

Many of us are strongly in favor of attaining normalization. Some believe it is essential to jettison the filibuster as an important part of the normalization process and to create a stronger position for the majority.

Hoyt Purvis is an emeritus professor of journalism and international relations at the University of Arkansas. Email him at [email protected].


Sponsor Content