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January 06, 2011 08:27 PM UTC

Reforming the Senate

  • by: Michael Bennet

( – promoted by Colorado Pols)

(Cross-posted at Huffington Post.)

One thing I hear time and again from Coloradans in every corner of our state is that Washington needs to quit the bickering and partisan politics. We need to reform Washington now more than ever to make sure it works for Coloradans and all Americans.  A key piece of that reform is fixing the rules of the Senate itself.

I’ve been pushing for reform of the filibuster and other arcane procedures since I came to Washington. The Senate’s rules and traditions are supposed to encourage Senators to get along, foster debate and get the people’s business done.  Yet a few rules are doing just the opposite, blocking progress on our most pressing challenges.  We’ve been prevented from moving forward on important issues like strengthening our economic recovery and creating jobs, and it’s not just about having a majority of support.

Often times, political games prevent Senators from even beginning to debate some of the most important issues. Good ideas, solutions from both parties, get tossed by the wayside because of obstruction. Improving some of the rules under which the Senate functions can begin to replace some of the bad habits Washington has developed, with better ones.

Now, it is time for action. This week, several of my colleagues and I have begun a process to challenge the broken rules in the Senate and reform the filibuster.   We will face resistance, but it is critical that we move forward on reform so we can get back to doing Colorado’s business.

My Plan to Reform the Filibuster:

• End the filibuster for motions to proceed

• Require 41 Senators to show up to vote in order to block cloture

• Encourage bipartisanship

• End Secret Holds


72 thoughts on “Reforming the Senate

    1. Hi David, this is Tim from Michael’s office.   He asked me to get back to you on your question:

      Michael’s proposal would eliminate secret holds.  As for holds made in public, those would have to be bipartisan – if not, the hold would expire after two days.   But even bipartisan holds would expire after 30 days.   You can read more about his full proposal here:

      Hope this answers your question.  Thanks for your comments.  

      1. Do you mind if we fire off a couple of other questions?  If so…

        First, the question on most peoples’ minds: can the Democrats reach agreement and get this passed?  And will the result likely be a token change or is it likely to be more like Senator Bennet’s proposal?  There is obviously still much negotiating going on…

        Second, does Sen. Bennet support some of the items laid out in some of the other proposals?  I am most interested in seeing the following reforms:

        • 2 hour post-cloture debate on nominations – necessary to prevent the minority from killing Senate business by objecting to nominees.
        • “Talking” filibuster, where the minority must maintain a certain quorum on the floor to maintain the filibuster
      2. What does Senator Bennet believe the result will be the next time the Democrats are in the minority in the Senate? Will these rule changes result in political strategies changing, and when Republicans are in the majority again, will it weaken the minority’s position?

      3. I am thrilled to see the Bennet office posting on Pols. I hope we see this much more. I think it can only help to relay information to informed voters and activists.

        Happy New year, and thank you.

  1. It might be a lack of history on my part, but it seems like the filibuster used to a tool used occasionally, only when the minority felt severely trampled upon.  Now, it seems like practically every initiative and bill is subject to a filibuster.  

    What if each Senator was only allowed one filibuster every Congress.  Therefore, the maximum number of filibusters would be 100 in a 2 year period, with 40-something being a more likely max.  

    I think having a limited amount like that over a two year period would bring the filibuster back to its intended purpose.


    1. The problem is the use of the cloture (spelling?) rule that allows the minority to simply threaten a filibuster if there are not 60 votes. However, the filibuster itself does not need to be carried out.

      When filibusters must happen in their entirety to be used at all, they become very rare.  In the current situation where each party has a majority in one of the chambers, they will be essentially unnecessary since the minority of one house can count on the their majority in the other to stop legislation they so strongly disagree with.

    2. Dan addresses the other problem – that the issue isn’t the filibuster, but rather the current cloture rules.

      But, yes, this past Congress has seen a dramatic rise in the (ab)use of the cloture/filibuster rules.  Last year, Senate Republicans threatened 136 filibusters.  Sen. Reid actually held 85 cloture votes. (The difference is a result of Reid withdrawing most of the other measures, and coming to agreement with the GOP on a few…_

      There was a long period of time where the filibuster was used less than a dozen times in a year – sometimes less than a dozen times a SESSION.  But since 1975 when the filibuster rules were reformed, the use of filibuster threats has risen steadily – until 2009, when Republicans ran the count off the graph.

      With a single Senator being able to hold the floor to maintain the filibuster, and shifting the burden of ending the filibuster to the majority party getting 60 votes, there is no penalty or commitment on the part of the minority trying to block a bill.  This is what needs to change to restore order to the Senate.

      1. Excellent points and good history.  I think, however, to some extent we have having a violent agreement.  The filibuster, when used sparingly, is in interesting addition to the American political system.  When used willy-nilly, it becomes dangerous.  

        How to reduce the number?  Require Senators to actually stand there and talk for hours?  Fine with me.  The goal is still the same — reduce the number.  

  2. I will sing your praises for this, Senator! Until then, you should think about the actions that led to the impasse in the Senate. Senator McConnell, your colleague, said this in response.

    1. “Senator McConnell, your colleague,” as if Bennet doesn’t know who McConnell is. This reminds me of the joke about George W. Bush, who always explained things as if he was talking to a five-year-old, because that’s how it was explained to him.

  3. I welcome reform measures in the U.S. Senate in which rules, which were established to ensure deliberative process and a buffer against the “tyranny of the majority”, have been misapplied in which the main objective is now blatant obstructionism of legitimate democratic procedures.

    The current situation is not unlike that of the senate in the 1940’s and 1950’s in which a handful of southern Senators, due to their senority and committee chairmanships, were able to stifle virtually all civil rights legislation. Sadly, with Congress thus abrogating its responsibilty in these matters, the courts had to be utilized to challenge the legal barriers of racial discrimination.

    With the serious problems facing this country, we need a Congress free of institutionalized dysfunction that is capable of addressing the challenges ahead, not one incapable of action.  

  4. Talk about political games. You know dang well that the only reason Democrats are pushing for repeal of the filibuster is because Republicans successfully used it to block their damaging legislation, and now that party membership is more evenly divided in the senate Dems resent the loss of power. Democrats were in full support of the filibuster when the GOP controlled the senate. The filibuster has been in place for years in order to protect the rights of those in the minority. The senate is supposed to be a less impulsive chamber than the house, where bad bills go to die. Quit monkeying with the rules.


      WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 PRNewswire-USNewswire — The Republican Senate minority today filibustered an omnibus budget bill, setting a modern-day record for blocking the most legislation during a congressional session.

      Those pesky ‘Framers’ and their intent, and the historical use of filibusters:

      Since 2006, the number of cloture motions filed has exploded, from 68 just four years ago to at least 132 motions in the 111th Congress, according to Senate statistics.

      The Senate averaged about one filibuster a year until 1970, while in the last two sessions it has averaged 70 per year, according to Democracy Rules, a coalition pushing for reform.

      The time has come to reexamine the Senate rule, said Caroline Fredrickson, executive director of the American Constitution Society.

      “Looking at the Constitution shows that the filibuster was never a part of the Framers’ original plan,” she said. “The filibuster is created in Senate rules, and has no basis in the Constitution. It is ripe for reconsideration.”

      Some nice charts and such:

          1. I’m not sure what’s funnier: the fact that you don’t know that cloture reform and filibuster reform are the same thing, or the fact that you don’t know the current proposed reform is intended to do exactly what you suggest.

            Oh, they’re both equally funny.

          2. Cloture is the motion that says “this debate is (eventually) coming to a vote” – under the current rules, if the cloture vote (the one that requires 60 Yes votes) succeeds, the remaining debate can be limited to 30 hours of floor time.

            If the cloture vote fails, what used to happen – and what these reformers hope will happen again (to varying extents depending on the proposal) – is that the Senate would move into a filibuster, and a minority (1/3 under the old rules) of the Senators present on the floor had to remain in support of the filibuster.  This kept the minority party on the floor, ostensibly discussing the merits of their objections.

            Under the current rules, as I note above, the filibuster can proceed with but a single Senator in the minority – but 60 majority Senators must succeed at another cloture motion before debate can end.  The filibuster is so painless that, given the unity of the minority party on most issues (including stupid ones like anonymous holds on nominations that eventually win 92-1 approvals) it’s simpler to just shelve the vote altogether.

      1. The stats clearly demonstrate the original intent of these rules have been circumvented.

        These rules aren’t in the Constitution, nor where they handed down from on high chiseled on a stone tablet. They are just rules. And when rules no longer serve their intended purpose, it’s time to change those rules for the better.

        If the NFL, MLB, NHL can change their rules for the betterment of the games, the U.S. Senate can do it too.

        1. So, the Senate could decide that one of it’s Rules of Proceedings is no member shall be seated unless they are tall enough. Or white enough.

          I agree the Constitution says each House can make it’s own rules – but I disagree that gives either house the “right” to make stupid rules.

          1. unless there is a conflicting Article, at which point it would be up to the activist judges on the SCOTUS to decide. You know, the ones that gave us Citizens United and Dredd Scott…

    2. If you’re so certain that things are going in the Republicans’ favor, you’re going to be quite happy to have these rule changes in two years. If things remain the way they are and the GOP takes the Senate in 2012, guess what? The shoe will be on the other foot.

      So think hard about your opposition to filibuster reform.

      1. I agree with the principle that the senate should be more cautious and deliberative than the house. It is where bad bills should go to die. The filibuster promotes smaller government no matter who is in power.

  5. I think we do  need filibuster reform that makes it very hard, rather than very easy, for the minority to block cloture and progress of bills to an up or down vote..  

    The fact is Senators are all people who had to get elected statewide, often in purple states.  They represent the majority in their states and collectively represent the will of the majority of the voters as expressed in elections.  

    Two Senators per state already addresses the issue of low population state power, making their citizens proportionately the most powerful per capita.  The minority don’t need, in addition, the modern easy as pie ability for them to bring legislation to a halt on top of that.  

    Filibuster should be rare and single holds, especially anonymous ones, ought to be banned as totally contrary to the principles of small “d” democracy. The overwhelming majority of votes should be up or down, majority rules as they used to be. Then the voters can see the majority policies in action and decide whether they want to keep that majority or not next time around.

    Thanks for leading on this important issue. And a word to the wise…never turn Dave down for a coffee meeting.  He gets very cranky real quick.

    As for adverse effects of weakening the filibuster/cloture rules should the Dems be in the minority, they have never had the guts to use them anywhere near as effectively as Rs.  All Rs have to do is say Democrats are obstructionists interfering with the  right of the voters to an up or down vote and Dems fold.

    When in the majority, Dems don’t want to look too mean attacking Rs for some reason while Rs couldn’t care less what Dems call them because they aren’t afraid to be who they are.  So I’m not too concerned about weakening a tool Dems are almost always too skittish to use effectively anyway. Who could forget the great nuclear option “compromise”? Basically if you don’t drop that bomb on us we promise to not filibuster! Pretty pathetic.  

    1. was that we knew the people were behind us. This was proven in the last election. If the senate decides to govern against the will of the majority, the filibuster is an appropriate response.

      1. In 2004 they were behind us!

        In 2006 they…um…

        In 2008 they were…uh, wait

        In 2010 they were sort of behind us!

        Reminds me of the joke about the physicist asked to prove all odd numbers are prime:

        1 is prime

        3 is prime

        5 is prime

        7 is prime

        9 is…uh, experimental error

        11 is prime

        13 is prime


      2. The only reason Republicans couldn’t care less in the last Congress is that blocking everything the Democrats wanted to do allowed them to paint Democrats as ineffective.

        Running the country had nothing to do with it so long as the GOP wasn’t in charge.

        1. Democrats were extremely effective at enacting an agenda the American people did not want. The reason Democrats lost wasn’t even so much that people supported the GOP, just that they hated what Democrats had done.

                  1. I was only home schooled in elementary. I graduated from a public high school in Texas with a year and a half of college credit from AP courses and a National Merit scholarship.

                    1. Fellow polsters, keep this in mind if he ever screeches that you’re outing him if you happen to mention these freely-provided facts in any of your future posts.

                    2. someone . . . PLEASE . . . give BJ a lolipop!

                      (He obviously never got enough to suck on as a little child.)

                  1. … is watching you learn the ways of redstate. How do you like their threats to ban ALL Ron Paul supporters for being Ron Paul supporters?

                    That’s the conservative idea of freedom of expression right there.

                    1. that you’re actually taking the time to read everything on redstate. Do you actually comment over there? I’m not a Ron Paul supporter.

                    2. I’m a longtime lurker. I used to comment around four years ago but there was little point in keeping up with it. They really don’t take too kindly to anyone who questions their extremely narrow views, and there are all kinds of conservatives (let alone liberals, who actually were tolerated at one time) who have found that out. Anyway, I just check in to see how much more nutty they reveal themselves to be. Now that you’re getting yours there too, that’s just the topping on the sundae.

                      BTW, they have too much stuff to read – I’m only checking in to see how you’re doing there, and it’s funny to see the shitstorm you’ve kicked up. You really have a knack for that.

                    3. I wouldn’t have thought you would have ever blogged on a site that had anything to do with a “red state”. There are plenty of blogs on the internet; if the moderators get too bad I’ll just go find another one. I could always go to conservatives4palin but that would be boring since I would agree with everybody. Huffpo maybe, that might be fun. 🙂

                    4. If I should ever start to cave to liberal arguments I expect they’ll correct my bad behavior.

          1. Democrats certainly did an excellent job of passing legislation this past session, in an historical context.  But…

            1) It came at the expense of appointees and judges.  This was, sadly, a wise choice, because due to the Senate rules, without unanimous consent and with the threat of cloture fights on each and every one of them, the Senate would have been completely unable to pass a single bill had they chosen to clear more nominees – and they still wouldn’t have gotten them all voted on!

            2) What they passed was not really what they wanted to pass.  Republicans were very effective in getting the legislation watered down, despite the Democrats having a nearly 20 vote majority in the Senate.

            3) There were more than 400 bills passed by the House which never received consideration in the Senate due to the time constraints imposed by the Republican Senate minority obstruction.  Some of these were important – e.g. all of the budget bills.

            Broken, by obstructionist Republicans.

  6. I just wanted to thank you for bringing this discussion to this site. I think it would be a profound improvement if more of our elected officials came here and did what you (even if via staff) have done.

    It is one thing for anonymous hacks such as myself to post here, it is quite another for a sitting US Senator to post publicly under his or her own name. I hope we see more of this.

    Oh, and I support filibuster reform with teeth, but not complete elimination of the rule. Just make it painful enough to do that people have to be really serious to undertake doing it. Like in those halcyon days of yore when it was used by the old guard Democrats of the South to uphold Jim Crow laws and stifle the civil rights movement.

  7. You join Rep. Polis. That’s good company.

    The House Republicans sure have started in rancor. Deciding to read the Consitution and skipping  parts that they don’t like

    seems oxymoronic.

    I hope that hopeless gridlock doesn’t set in.

    Regarding supporting your candidacy last year, I’d say the same thing I told my friend Mikey Boling when I was laid me off last year.

    I’d do it all over again in an instant.

  8. If Senator Bennet doesn’t fight any harder for Real Change in the Senate’s Filibuster Rule than he did for the Public Option, we will all be dissatisfied with him.  He ran hundreds of internet ads proclaiming himself to be  the PUBLIC OPTION HERO, but ignored a petition pushed by Jane Hamsher and David Sirota and signed by thousands begging him to publicly fight to have it included in the final bill.

    The filibuster gives our very Conservative Senate Democrats something to hide behind, and is an excuse used every time they fail to do what the Democratic Base wanted.

    The Constitution says the Senate should operate on Majority Rule so Get rid of the filibuster and when we again give our elected Democrats the Senate majority they will have to vote for what the base wants .  

    If they don’t, we will know for sure that they are Democrats In Name Only.  Then we can get rid of them in the next Primary.

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