The United States Senate has a problem. Over the years, the Senate has passed fewer and fewer bills and with the current trajectory, it looks the downward trend will continue. Some people say the filibuster is the deep, underlying problem with the Senate’s inefficiencies. Since individual senators are able to debate endlessly until a 60-vote cloture is reached, many bills are struck down before they even reach a vote.
Opponents of the filibuster want the debate to end with a simple majority vote. Although the logic seems sound, these opponents overlook the wide spectrum of ideologies within each party. We should not assume party unity. Abolishing the filibuster will not increase Senate efficiency, and we must look to different long-term and short-term solutions to fix the U.S. Senate.
It is widely believed that abolishing the filibuster would solve the Senate’s gridlock problems. By reducing the 60-vote requirement to a bare majority, the party in control would pass whatever bills they favor. But this isn’t the case for most bills.
James Curry, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said, eliminating the filibuster would “lay bare just how divided each party actually is.” The majority parties know they need 60 cloture votes, so for a bill that they know won’t pass cloture, majority senators are perfectly willing to vote for cloture and blame the minority party when it doesn’t pass.
Without cloture, individual senators in the majority party would have much more responsibility. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia must be moderate to keep his seat, and therefore couldn’t sign onto a partisan bill. For this reason, not much more legislation would be passed.
As partisanship continues to increase, so do the problems. If parties become internally unified, bills would pass with a slim majority. We would see the back and forth of heavily divided bills as party control shifts. Currently, this happens in the executive branch, as the signing of executive orders allows presidents to flip-flop legislation. But there’s a limit to what can be an executive order. An internally unified Senate majority without a filibuster removes that limit. The danger wouldn’t occur in the interim, but the long-term effects could spell out major political instability.
The most obvious fix to the Senate’s gridlock problem is to seek bipartisanship. Where abolishing the filibuster encourages parties to look inward towards their own problems, the current structure encourages parties to seek allies across the aisle.
Since the adoption of the 60-vote cloture rule in 1975, there have been only two Senates in which the majority party could surpass that threshold by itself. Every other majority had fewer than 60 votes, and some sort of bipartisanship was required to push through legislation. However, this didn’t stop major legislation from being passed. Everything from crime bills, tax cuts and even the Patriot Act required bipartisan support.
The issue is not the process itself, but the increasing partisanship we see in the Senate. To say we need to fix political polarization is obvious, yet admittedly idealistic. Partisanship is not easily reversible, and the U.S. Senate surely won’t be fixed overnight. But that doesn’t make it any less important. Setting a long-term goal of increasing bipartisanship will greatly increase the Senate’s efficiency, far more than abolishing the filibuster ever could.
Since bipartisanship is such a long-term issue, any short-term fix to make sensible policies quickly passable would be beneficial. One of these fixes could be the abolition of the waiting period for cloture. Per current Senate rules, once a cloture motion has been filed, the Senate must wait two calendar days to vote on it. Professor Curry said this is a “relatively long process.” He also noted that this rule allows individual senators to prolong the process even if the cloture motion has 60 votes. There’s no benefit to the rule. All it does is prolong the process for a bill that will likely pass anyways.
By taking away this mandated time period, senators won’t have the power to prolong an inevitable bill passage. This change would partially fix the slowness of the Senate, all while keeping the current procedures in place. This is a small fix. There are no short-term changes that will fix the Senate completely. But it will do its part in optimizing a flawed body.
Truthfully, there’s no easy fix to the Senate’s efficiency problems. While abolishing the filibuster may sound like the way to get senators working again, it actually presents a major long-term issue for the American government. The problem with the Senate is mostly not one of procedural flaws, but rather personnel incompetence. If senators are unwilling to work with each other, we will continue to make no progress.
Minor structural changes to Senate procedure could speed up the process to a point, but in the long run, the Senate and U.S. have three choices: They could continue down this road of inefficient policymaking, they could abolish the filibuster and send us down an even more partisan path, or they could start on the path of healing and bipartisanship. I choose the third because after all, we are — or at least we’re supposed to be — the United States of America.