Editorial: Buster, we're fed up with the filibuster

Published: Friday, Apr. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 16A

The U.S. Senate vote on expanding background checks for gun sales was not close – 55-45. Officially, it was 54-46, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who supported the measure, had to vote against it in order to to be able to to bring it back.

Yet the measure was defeated. How is that possible when 55 senators supported passage?

The culprit is arcane Senate Rule XXII, the "filibuster" that requires 60 votes to end debate. This is just a Senate rule, not a law or a constitutional provision. This latest defeat of a measure supported by a majority of senators is only one in a long, recent catalog of abuses of the filibuster.

This replacement of majority rule by minority rule is unacceptable in a constitutional republic that has checks and balances that already protect the minority from the prospect of unfettered majority tyranny.

Senate rules have been changed from time to time – and it is time to change them now. Don't tweak, don't massage the filibuster. End it.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein commented after the background checks failed: "Everything needs 60 votes today. This is supposed to be a majority body." She should do something about it.

Some senators have expressed reluctance to end the filibuster, noting that many NRA-supported provisions might pass if the Senate went strictly to a 51-vote majority, such as an amendment where 57 senators supported "national reciprocity" of concealed carry permits. Let's put that to the test. Senators who so easily voted for NRA-backed amendments, knowing they would be defeated by the 60-vote threshold, might have second thoughts if they really might pass.

This is a chance worth taking – and would force senators to work harder on forging majority coalitions, instead of relying on minority antics.

Article I, Section 5 of the U.S. Constitution provides the majority with a way to change the rules and they should exercise it. If a rules-change proposal is filibustered, any senator can invoke the Senate's powers under the constitution to force a vote. The threat to use this "constitutional option" alone should get a vote on a rules-change proposal.

Failing that, constitutional experts point out that the Senate could adopt a standing order altering the Senate's procedures, including the filibuster. For example, in December 2000, the Senate adopted a standing order limiting members' ability to filibuster conference reports.

To adopt a new standing order, a majority may seek a ruling from the presiding officer to override any filibusters. The vice president is "president of the Senate" and, thus, Joe Biden acts as presiding officer.

Reid should use this as leverage to win a bipartisan agreement to end to Rule XXII.

The Senate had no filibusters until 1830, and they were used only rarely until very recently. Filibustering to prevent majority rule did not exist at all in the early Senate.

Originalists, as well as those concerned with making the Senate function effectively, should join forces to end the filibuster. It not only delays, but prevents any action on the important issues of the day.

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