Dear Senator Marco Rubio: Facts matter – even on the simple issue of filibuster reform.
January 30, 2013
The bastardization of the filibuster in the Senate has been the subject of many discussions, articles and even a book. I expressed my own take on the filibuster in a previous posting and will not belabor the point by revisiting all of the reasons that the perverse mutations to the Senate rule have created a divisive tool that impedes the work of the Senate.
As a Florida resident, I wrote to Senator Marco Rubio expressing my opinion that the country would benefit from serious filibuster reform; something that would at least require a Senator to physically hold the floor for the duration of the filibuster. As we know, all that is needed to filibuster a bill is to send a memo stating the intent to filibuster. Once the memo is received 60 votes are required for cloture to end the filibuster. No Senator ever needs to speak during the filibuster.
In his response, Senator Rubio was appropriately direct in noting that our opinions differed on this issue and he wanted to explain his position. I think that’s an impressive way to start a letter and one that can easily be respected. However, as he explained his position it quickly became apparent he was repeating the same misconceptions about the filibuster that many Americans have accepted. He cited facts to support his position which if true would have been persuasive. The only problem is that his facts were wrong.
I understand that Senator Rubio probably did not draft this response himself but nevertheless it is the opinion of his office and one would hope that the office of a US Senator could get their facts right on such a fundamentally simple issue. (I do wonder if this is really what Senator Rubio himself believes.) If they’re basing simple positions on a poor understanding of the facts then it makes one wonder how the more complex issues are handled.
The following response from Senator was received January 25, 2013. My reply to his note follows but I don’t expect to receive a response to that one so I thought I’d post it here.
Dear Dr. Barefoot,
Thank you for writing to me to express your views regarding the use of the filibuster in the United States Senate. While our views on this issue may differ, I want you to know where I stand.
The filibuster is a crucial procedural mechanism that is unique to the Senate. It allows all voices to be heard in the debate and I am committed to maintaining its presence in this institution. I opposed the plans to amend the filibuster and eliminate the protections it provides to political minorities in the Senate. Our founding fathers designed this chamber of Congress to preserve the right of political minorities to debate the bills that are brought before the Senate. The tradition of unlimited debate is unique to the United States Senate and I will fight to ensure that this tradition is protected.
It is an honor and a privilege to serve you as your United States Senator. I appreciate you offering your opinion this very complicated issue. If I can be of any help to you, or if you have any other concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me.
United States Senator
Dear Senator Rubio;
I appreciate your taking the time to reply to my question regarding filibuster reform. However, I must observe that your characterization of the filibuster as a design of the founding fathers as well as its uniqueness to the Senate is not entirely factual.
Unfortunately, it is a common misconception that the founding fathers created the filibuster to preserve minority rights in the Senate by not limiting debate but history tells a different story.
In 1789 the House and Senate created the rules for their respective chambers and each included a rule to “move the previous question.” In essence, this motion allowed a simple majority to cut off debate and it governed both the House and the Senate. It wasn’t until 1805 when Aaron Burr recommended streamlining the Senate rules and suggested removing the previous question rule from the Senate rule book. When the rule was removed the door for the filibuster was created but the absence of this rule wasn’t invoked as what we think of today as a filibuster until 1837.
With these facts in mind it is difficult to see how it is accurate for you to maintain “Our founding fathers designed this chamber of Congress to preserve the right of political minorities to debate the bills that are brought before the Senate. The tradition of unlimited debate is unique to the United States Senate…”
A close and nonpartisan inspection of the historical facts regarding the filibuster leads most critical thinkers to accept that the filibuster is a modern phenomenon and one that was never specifically envisioned by the founding fathers.
The proliferation of its use, facilitated by the ease in which it may now be invoked, has turned the Senate into a defacto 60 vote majority chamber. This was clearly not the intent of the founders and as a conservative I would hope you could see the wisdom in returning the Senate to a body that more closely aligns with their original intent.
I understand the practical political reasons the minority party wishes to protect the modern day filibuster but I think some may find it disingenuous to attempt to argue that position by citing facts that do not exist.
I really do love our political system where a citizen can express an opinion to their representative and be heard. I’m not sure one voice can have an impact but all we can do is stay engaged and keep trying. In this case, meaning filibuster reform is dead and we’re destined for continued Senate gridlock.