Back in 1925, Vice President Charles Dawes, a conservative Republican, unleashed a blistering attack on a small group of progressive Republican senators who had filibustered legislation at the end of the previous session. The existing two—thirds rule he thundered. “at times enables Senators to consume in oratory those last precious minutes of a session needed for momentous decisions,” thereby placing great power in the hands of s few senators. Unless Rule 22 was liberalized it would “lessen the effectiveness, prestige, and dignity of the United States Senate.”
He angered his colleagues with his proposal who thought the Senate rules were none of his business. His observations, however, seem surprisingly prescient in our own times.
Extreme partisanship has led to unprecedented gridlock in Congress which affects the whole government, and the lives of ordinary citizens. ( See "The Rising Cost of Gridlock" , The Financial Times )
One of the parliamentary facilitators of our present governmental gridlock is the contemporary use of the filibuster in the Senate. Originally intended to be a little-used, final safeguard for minority interests. This parliamentary devise has become a frequently employed measure that has prevented Congress from carrying out its legislative business. And when Congress cannot do its job, the functioning of the other branches is also impacted. ( See THE Senat Filibuster: The Politics Of Obstruction, 468 Harvard Journal on Legislation 467 ( 2011) )
A recent story from "The Hill", By Mike Lillis and Bernie Becker, "Filibuster faces terminal decline", reports on the most recent attempt in Congress to rein in the use of the filibuster.
The Senate has passed a resolution under Democratic leadership, to allow only a majority vote of those present on the floor, to invoke cloture under certain conditions, including debate on "advice and consent to a nomination or treaty". This comes in the face of republican senators using the filibuster or threat of the filibuster, to block many needed appointments to agency and judicial positions. ( RESOLUTION S.Res.4 — 113th Congress (2013-2014).
This particular change to the Senate rules re. the filibuster is part of a series of historical attempts to limit how the filibuster can be used. A cloture rule was adopted in 1917. In 1949, liberals in the Senate attempted to amend the filibuster rule in order to prevent Southern senators from filibustering President Truman’s civil rights bill. n 1957, Vice President Nixon rendered an advisory opinion determining that the Senate filibuster rule could be amended by a majority vote. In 1957, Lyndon B. Johnson compromise reduce the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds of the Senate to two-thirds of a quorum and expanded the rule to allow cloture for motions to amend the rules of the Senate. In 1975 number of votes required to adopt a motion for cloture at three-fifths of the Senate rather than two-thirds of a quorum.." ( See The Senate Filibuster: The Politics Of Obstruction p. 474 )
Although these changes have been years apart and mostly incremental, Michael Mezey, a political science professor at DePaul University, observes in the article that "From here on in, the filibuster is likely to be eroded, bit by bit," "Once you’ve gone to the well for the parliamentary option … it will be tempting to go there again even on legislation and perhaps on Supreme Court nominees."
This would be a hopeful prospect for citizens who have given Congress its lowest popular ratings in years, due to the partisan gridlock that has been abetted by the use of the filibuster. It seems that reoccurring crises are required to move toward the reform that Vice President Charles Dawes saw the need for, 88 years ago !