Another year, another government shutdown. Not that we need more evidence, but these events once again show that Washington is broken.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill to avoid the latest shutdown and fund enhanced border security at a level supported by President Trump and agreed upon by many Democrats as part of broader legislation earlier this year.
Following the House vote, I suggested the U.S. Senate take an up or down vote on the bill. If a majority supported it, it would go to President Trump’s desk for signature. If not, we would work on another solution.
That struck me as a reasonable idea. So, what’s the problem?
To understand the issue, you have to understand how the Senate works, and more specifically, the misguided Senate filibuster. To pass most legislation in the Senate, you need to get 60 votes, rather than a simple majority. This is what we call the filibuster.
The underlying problem with the filibuster is seen clearly in the very broken annual funding process for the federal government. Congress must pass all of the funding bills before the year ends. Over the past 41 years, Congress has only done this four times.
At the end of the day, whether you have a Republican or Democrat controlled Congress, you still need 60 Senate votes to pass funding bills. And as we’ve seen over the last few decades, that rarely happens, leading to the problem we’re facing today.
You won’t find the filibuster in the Constitution. The founding fathers spelled out in the Constitution which actions, such as ratifying treaties, require a super-majority in the Senate. Funding the government was not one of them.
In fact, when then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson served as president of the Senate, he prepared a parliamentary manual for senators that included the statement: “The voice of the majority decides.”
It is true that our founders designed the Senate to be a more deliberative body. For example, senators represent the diverse interests of an entire state, which tends to broaden and restrain perspectives. Senators serve six-year terms, versus two in the House.
And the Senate is different than the House because each state receives equal representation regardless of population. Senator Tester and I have as much voting power as California’s senators, while California has 53 members in the House and Montana has only one. That’s a remarkable feature of the Senate that protects and empowers states like Montana.
But none of the attributes of the Senate demand or justify the filibuster.
Proponents of the filibuster, such as my good friend Max Baucus, argue that it is consistent with the framers’ design of the Senate even if they didn’t envision it.
I respectfully but strongly disagree. The filibuster is simply incompatible with our founding fathers’ intention for the Senate to operate under majority rule. Senator Baucus himself recognized this fact when he voted in 2013 to allow most federal nominees to be confirmed through a simple majority vote.
Further, filibuster defenders argue that the distinct character of the Senate would collapse without the filibuster. Here again, I think they are mistaken. The features of the Senate that make it unique from the House would remain fully intact even if the legislative filibuster were abolished.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for maintaining the filibuster is that requiring a super-majority encourages bipartisanship and compromise. The evidence suggests otherwise.
I was recently named one of the leading bipartisan senators. Two-thirds of the bills I’ve introduced this Congress have a Democratic cosponsor. This bipartisanship was driven not by the filibuster, but by common interests. My determination to build coalitions and find consensus wouldn’t change if the filibuster is eliminated.
The constant obstruction caused by the filibuster has encouraged more partisanship rather than bipartisanship.
The Senate can change its practice and restore majority rule just as the framers of the Constitution designed it. It is time to return our trust to their wisdom.