Filibusters take the Senate away from the American people

October 07, 1994|By Elliot L. Richardson

IF THE Senate operated by majority rule, Congress would have passed a lobbying reform law this week and a campaign finance reform law last week. It also would have adopted the first major telecommunications reform law in 50 years, reined in the giveaway of taxpayer-owned gold to private mining companies and perhaps adopted a compromise health-care reform plan.

Each of these bills is now dead for Congress, because a filibuster frenzy has made majority rule the exception rather than the rule in the Senate.

When senators filibuster, using parliamentary tactics to block the Senate from voting, they turn democracy on its head. Since the Senate's current rules require three-fifths of the Senate to break a filibuster, 41 members can hold the Senate hostage, even if 59 are ready to take action.

The majority must either allow the bill to die, or pay whatever legislative ransom is demanded -- sometimes a multimillion dollar handout for a senator's favorite college or highway, sometimes changes in policy.

The issue isn't whether we are for or against whatever bill is the filibuster's victim. There are times when a nation's future may depend on whether its citizens can rise above policy differences and take a stand for democracy. This is such a time. At stake is our government's ability to make decisions and take action.

That's why I've joined 25 of our nation's most respected leaders, whether Republicans -- such as former Sens. Barry Goldwater, Charles McC. Mathias and Robert Stafford -- and Democrats -- such as former Sens. William Proxmire, Birch Bayh and Gaylord Nelson -- in launching the Action, Not Gridlock! campaign to sound an alarm: A filibuster frenzy gravely threatens our government's ability to act to meet the nation's pressing challenges.

We have had more filibusters in the last four years than in the Senate's first 140 years combined. Today, the ever-present threat of a filibuster, whether by Republicans or Democrats, affects nearly every issue.

In May, for example, our government was forced to give away $10 billion of gold on federal land. Why? Because filibuster threats blocked efforts to fix the Gold Rush-era mining law requiring this giveaway and dozens more in the months ahead, giveaways of billions of dollars that come out of our pockets as taxpayers.

The Founding Fathers would be appalled to learn that the framework they had labored so valiantly to construct had been perverted by the filibuster.

To be sure, there must be ample opportunity for expression of minority views, and perhaps even additional incentive for a majority to seek broader agreement. Some have suggested, for example, that the number of senators needed to break a filibuster might decline from 60 to 51 as a filibuster dragged on. But using the fiction of "extended debate" as a means of blocking action on urgent problems is a corruption of the democratic process.

Senators need not await a rules change to regain their self-restraint and their respect for the democratic process. Just as we forswear using chemical weapons in war, senators should forswear using filibusters in legislative combat. Such scorched-earth tactics may win a battle but leave the democratic process in ruins.

Each of us has a choice. We can choose gridlock and policy by ransom, or we can choose democracy.

Action, Not Gridlock! says to our senators: We pay you to make decisions, not to stand in the way and make no decisions. So vote for or against legislation, but respect democracy and majority rule. Give the Senate back its right to vote, and give Americans back their right to action. No more filibusters.

Elliot L. Richardson, a Republican, was secretary of health, education and welfare, secretary of defense and attorney general under President Nixon.

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