After so many decades of covering the legislative process, I have gained an appreciation for Senate filibusters. So many times I have seen the advantages of the power of a senator or two to speak as long as possible to delay hasty action.
Filibusters can be effective tools for forging compromises that sometimes involve further issues before the legislature. A filibuster can also provide an opportunity for a private discussion of key players to find a solution to a difficult problem.
On the day I finished this column, Senator Doug Razer, D-Kansas City, provided his Senate colleagues with one of the most powerful descriptions I’ve heard in the Senate of same-sex discrimination, even though his amendment was going nowhere. Beyond that, often in years past, these buccaneers could be downright entertaining and humorous intended to ease tensions.
Traditionally, the filibuster has been championed as a mechanism to prevent tyranny by the majority of the house on controversial issues of public policy. George Washington has been quoted describing the new US Senate as a saucer for cooling tea. “We pour legislation into the Senate saucer to cool it down,” he reportedly told Thomas Jefferson.
The many filibusters this year by Republicans’ seven-member conservative caucus have caused me to reconsider my thoughts.
Without the votes to secure their congressional redistricting proposal to win a Republican district, they used the filibuster to block almost any further Senate action.
Filibustering at the start of the day’s session to block routine approval of the previous day’s paper seemed extreme to me. The Senate leadership shares some of the blame. Their decision to exclude senators from the conservative GOP caucus from a GOP caucus meeting in December likely stoked animosity. It seems to me that legislative term limits are a major factor in the collapse of the Senate filibuster. More than half of the members of the Conservative Senate caucus have two years or less left in the Senate.
Before term limits, senators had spent so many years in the House that they had developed oratorical skills that made their buccaneers downright entertaining rather than hostile or preaching to one another.
I often told my Statehouse journalism students that covering the Statehouse was like going to the circus without needing a ticket.
Beyond that, extended years of service in the Senate limited disruptive attacks due to deep friendships that led to more respectful behavior from colleagues. But without those years of relationships, what if a senator angers his colleagues?
Term limits also leave a term-limited legislator with fewer years to fulfill a legislative legacy or gain public attention for a future campaign. This could be a bigger factor in the current election year. In the days before term limits, there was also the danger that questioning leadership would have consequences for future postings. All of this got me thinking that maybe it’s time to reconsider the Senate filibuster rules.
The Senate passed a rule change this year to require 10 rather than five signatures on a written motion to end debate and force a vote. Like the House, approval requires a majority of the House. But the Senate has a long-standing tradition that makes it nearly impossible for a majority party to vote “closing” against a member of the majority party.
In contrast, the Missouri House Majority Leader regularly makes successful motions to end protracted debate. It makes the House process much more efficient. The Senate filibuster this year could have lasting effects.
Conservative redistricting filibusters contributed to the legislature’s failure to propose a redistricting map of Congress before the nomination deadline, which could be a possible problem for court intervention. Additionally, these filibusters could leave a legacy that it is only fitting for a filibuster to block all Senate action rather than just the issue at hand. This danger was demonstrated more than two decades ago when Democrats lost majority control of the Senate. Democrats responded with near-constant filibusters that one Democratic leader said were simply aimed at limiting the number of conservative GOP questions that could pass before the legislature’s constitutional deadline. By the way, this column was inspired by a PBS special about one of our country’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin.
The program described how Franklin was a leader in seeking compromise among the warring factions of delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Maybe the Missouri Senate needs a modern-day Benjamin Franklin.
Phill Brooks has been a reporter at the Missouri Statehouse since 1970, making him the dean of the Statehouse’s press corps. He is the National Correspondent for KMOX Radio, Director of MDN, and Distinguished Faculty Member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He’s covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.