published online: 12/12/2009
Harkin considers raising bill to end filibuster
By CHRISTINIA CRIPPES
Revenge could have been sweet.
The 1994 election saw a greater shift from Senate Democrats than the 2006 shift from Republicans.
So, in 1995 as a member of the newly minority party, Sen. Tom Harkin could have exacted revenge by offering to filibuster Republicans at every turn. Instead, he pushed for reform.
Nearly 15 years ago, the Iowa senator first introduced legislation that would end the Senate rule of filibuster, or endlessly debating a bill until its ultimate demise. The bill ultimately failed to pass the Senate by a vote of 76-19.
Given what he sees as the abuse of power by a couple members of his own party whom he said are threatening to join the minority party if their every demand is not met, Harkin is considering reintroducing the legislation.
"I think, if anything, this health care debate is showing the dangers of unlimited filibuster," Harkin said Thursday during a conference call with reporters. "I think there's a reason for slowing things down ... and getting the public aware of what's happening and maybe even to change public sentiment, but not to just absolutely stop something."
Harkin noted with interest that his original legislation was cosponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who has been threatening to filibuster the legislation. According to www.filibusted.us, a Web site that tracks how lawmakers vote on closing debate to avoid a filibuster, Harkin -- a member of the majority party now -- has voted to end debate 32 of 34 times, rather than filibuster. It said further he consistently votes to end filibusters.
"I did a lot of research on this back in the '90s, and it turned out the filibuster is just a Senate rule, not the Constitution or anything like that," Harkin said. "The reason, as best as I can ascertain it from historians that I talked to, Senate historians, was that it came into being when the Senate ... would meet and they would pass a bill before other senators could get there."
He said it became a rule that lawmakers could hold up the bill until more senators were there to vote on it and with enough time to make the public aware of the proposed legislation.
The history turns out to be much trickier than that. Reports vary in when and how the filibuster began and when it was first used.
One thing is for sure, the word originates from the Dutch word for "pirate" and has come to mean the action in which a person takes control of the debate by endlessly talking in an effort to stall or kill the legislation.
The most famous example is probably in the realm of film where Jimmy Stewart took the role of a new senator dismayed by a piece of legislation and took to filibuster in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." The longest real-life filibuster was by South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond who filibustered for more than 24 hours against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, according to the Senate's history Web site.
In the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, two constitutional scholars Martin Gold and Dimple Gupta said filibustering began when then-Vice President Aaron Burr did not see a need to call for an end to the debate, as holding it up was not something that was done in the "dignified Senate."
"The Senate followed this advice but failed to impose any other device by which debate might be restricted," the scholars wrote. "Thus, by sheer oversight in 1806, the Senate opened itself to the possibility of filibuster."
The scholars place the first filibuster in the 1830s, when senators wanted to censure then-President Andrew Jackson for withdrawing federal funds from the Bank of the United States.
Although not labeling it a "first," the Senate's history Web site first mentions a debate in 1841 where one senator was accused of trying to stop the "right to unlimited debate." The Senate Web site said the issue was a bank bill, though the newsmagazine Time said the first filibuster, which it also places in 1841, was over the firing of Senate printers.
The exact rules for ending debate have changed over the years, but now 60 votes are required to stop ongoing attempts to hold up legislation through filibuster.
A new proposal
Regardless of its origins, Harkin said the filibuster has outlived its usefulness.
"Today, in the age of instant news and Internet and rapid travel -- you can get from anywhere to here within a day or a few hours -- the initial reasons for the filibuster kind of fall by the wayside, and now it's got into an abusive situation," Harkin said.
He and the constitutional scholars agree that the intention was never to hold up legislation entirely.
To keep the spirit of slowing down legislation, though, Harkin's proposal back in 1995 would have kept the 60-vote rule for the first vote but lessening the number required in subsequent votes.
He said for instance if 60 senators could not agree to end debate, it would carry on for another week or so and then the number of votes required to end debate would drop by three. Harkin said it would carry on this way until it reached a simple majority of 51 votes.
"You could hold something up for maybe a month, but then, finally you'd come down to 51 votes and a majority would be able to pass," Harkin said. "I may revive that. I pushed it very hard at one time and then things kind of got a little better."
When Harkin first made his proposal, the New York Times wrote a New Year's Day editorial in praise of the move.
"The U.S. Senate likes to call itself the world's greatest deliberative body," the editorial began. "The greatest obstructive body is more like it. In the last session of Congress, the Republican minority invoked an endless string of filibusters to frustrate the will of the majority. This relentless abuse of a time-honored Senate tradition so disgusted Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, that he is now willing to forgo easy retribution and drastically limit the filibuster. Hooray for him."
The New York Times reran a version of the article in Thursday's New York edition of the newspaper.