The Mullibuster Option

One of the zanier features of American politics is the Senate’s fillibuster rule. Long ago, the Senate, by a simple majority vote, ruled that a supermajority is required to get any business done, with the result that often nothing gets done at all.

On the positive side, however, the threat of a fillibuster has given the Senate a reputation for being more deliberate in its actions than the House of Representatives. It has often saved the country from legislation being ramrodded through the way it frequently is in the House.

In 2013, the Democrat-controlled Senate voted, 52 to 48, to waive the supermajority rule for the confirmation of federal judges, though not for the Supreme Court. At that time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell threatened, “I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.” (New York Times, 11/22/13)

Now that the Republicans are back in power, it is therefore just a matter of time until they reciprocate and eliminate the fillibuster altogether, beginning perhaps with the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch. This so-called “Nuclear Option” will push the Republican agenda through, but regrettably it will also abase the Senate to the same low level as the House.

However, there is a third option between the fillibuster and immediately passing unread bills with a simple majority, that allows the Senate to mull over contentious bills and appointments without blocking its business entirely. Under this “Mullibuster” option, any bill or confirmation that failed to pass by a 3/5 margin would be subject to tabling for a period of say 2 weeks, at which time it would come back for a new vote. If at that time the bill was exactly the same, it would require only a simple majority to pass. But if it has been amended in the meantime, the revision would be subject to the same Mullibuster rule.

The two week delay would give Senators, their staffs, and the blogospheric public time to actually read the bill, to scrutinize it for flaws, and to rally support or opposition back home. Perhaps the Senate would make the Mullibuster automatic for all measures that failed to gain 3/5 support, or perhaps it would require the formal request of one or more of the dissenting Senators.

If the Senate does adopt the Mullibuster, the House might even be shamed into adopting a similar rule...

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