The month of January has been the longest year ever. But it hasn’t been all bad. Democrats won both Senate runoff elections in Georgia, Joe Biden was inaugurated and Kamala Harris is officially our first woman Vice President. Now that the elections and inauguration are behind us, it’s time to focus on actual governing. And we have questions. Like, what is the Senate filibuster? And how does budget reconciliation work? And WTF is an organizing resolution?
So, in this post I try to explain, in normal person words, a few key Senate details that we used to ignore.
What is the Senate filibuster?
Many of us have a generic understanding of the filibuster, but Senate rules complicate its application. Filibuster has two definitions:
- the use of irregular or obstructive tactics by a member of a legislative assembly to prevent the adoption of a measure generally favored or to force a decision against the will of the majority.
- an exceptionally long speech, as one lasting for a day or days, or a series of such speeches to accomplish this purpose.
The current rules of the US Senate do not require the “exceptionally long speech” to “force a decision against the will of the majority.”
Rather, the Senate enacted something called Rule 22. This requires a three-fifths (or a 60-Senator) majority vote to end debate. Known as the cloture rule, it is intended to preserve the history of unlimited debate but is very problematic in practice.
To put it bluntly: the Senate filibuster rule means a minority party can obstruct legislation by voting “no” on holding a vote.
How does the filibuster work in today’s Senate?
- The majority leader (currently Democrat Chuck Schumer) has legislation they want the Senate to vote on. They ask the Senate for “unanimous consent” to vote on the legislation.
- If no Senator objects, debate ends and the legislation goes to a vote. Yay, democracy!
- If any Senator objects, the leader (or another senator) typically files a cloture motion. Because of Rule 22, 60 Senators (three-fifths) must vote to adopt the cloture motion and end debate. The Senate may then vote on the proposed legislation.
- If fewer than 60 senators support cloture, the legislation is filibustered. There is no vote on the proposed legislation. Boo, obstruction!
In our very divided Senate, it is quite difficult to get 60 Senators to agree on anything. Split 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, at least 10 Republicans must vote on cloture in order for legislation to receive a vote.
It’s important to recognize that the current filibuster and cloture rules were a very effective way for southern Senators to block civil rights legislation. The rules are historically gross (not a technical term) and, in modern application, prevent a party with a slight majority from any legislative accomplishments. For example, the Senate used the filibuster at a record pace to block President Obama’s agenda.
How do we get rid of the filibuster?
The most straightforward way to get rid of the filibuster is to change Rule 22. Of course, there’s a catch! A Senate rules change requires a two-thirds vote. There is no way 17 Republican Senators will vote to end this rule that currently allows them to derail Democrat-supported legislation.
The more likely option to end the filibuster is referred to as the “nuclear option. And, yikes, that sounds very extreme and dangerous, doesn’t it?
In actuality, it is a parliamentary process that only requires a simple majority to change Senate rules. But, changing the Senate rules is thought of as a drastic step and is not supported by all Senate Democrats. With only 50 Democrats (plus Vice President Kamala Harris as a tie-breaker), every motion or vote must be unanimous among Democrats to pass. And this option just isn’t.
If you want to dive a little deeper, The Brookings Institute provides a long and thorough piece all about the filibuster and how to eliminate it.
What is budget reconciliation?
tl;dr: Absent getting rid of the filibuster rule, budget reconciliation is the Democrats best option to pass important legislation quickly.
Budget reconciliation is a process that allows the Senate to pass tax and spending legislation with a simple majority. It automatically limits debate and is not subject to the filibuster rule.
In other words, the Senate doesn’t need 60 Senators to agree to move forward on a vote. It limits the minority party’s ability to block and obstruct legislation.
Created by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, reconciliation allows for expedited consideration of certain tax, spending, and debt limit legislation. In the Senate, reconciliation bills aren’t subject to filibuster and the scope of amendments is limited, giving this process real advantages for enacting controversial budget and tax measures.Budget and Policy Priorities
The Congressional Budget Act limits the kind of bills that pass via reconciliation and the frequency of its use. Qualifying legislation must change spending, revenues, and/or the federal debt limit.
Practically speaking, this also avoids the filibuster issue because the Congressional Budget Act limits Senate debate on the bill to 20 hours, and it limits debate on the subsequent compromise between the two houses to ten hours.
Other than these specific limitations, a reconciliation bill proceeds the same as other legislation: passed by House, Senate and signed by the President.
With Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress and the White House, they will likely rely on reconciliation to move quickly on important budget legislation. For example: a COVID relief bill.
For a deeper dive on budget reconciliation, I recommend “How Democrats can get stuff done without eliminating the filibuster.”
What is an organizing resolution?
An organizing resolution is basically an agreement between the parties delegating authorities, responsibilities and committee roles.
Following elections and at the beginning of a new Congress, “the Senate adopts an organizing resolution listing committee ratios, committee membership, and other agreements between the parties on the operation of the Senate.”
Ordinarily, this is rather mundane. But, like nearly everything else, this is not a typical year. Because the Senate is so evenly split, leadership from both parties must negotiate on a power-sharing agreement. As of the date of this post, they have not formally agreed on a resolution.
Indivisible has a great write-up about the organizing resolution for this Senate and why Democrats must leverage their slim majority.
So is the Senate going to accomplish anything in 2021, or nah?
Frankly, the Senate must accomplish things – and quickly. First, and most obviously, we are in the middle of numerous crises. If you believe, as I do, that the government has a role in helping people, they must demonstrate the ability to provide relief.
Second, if they don’t, Democrats will pay for it at the ballot box. Democrats control the House, the Senate and the White House – a trifecta. If they don’t use this opportunity to make tangible, positive change for Americans, it will be hard to justify retaining control of those bodies.
What can we do?
I’m so glad you asked! Civic engagement doesn’t end at an election. We must reach out to our elected officials to make our voices heard. If you want to get fired up and ready to go, read Indivisible’s A Practical Guide for Fixing Democracy.
For specific and timely action items, follow Operation Amplify on Instagram.
Do you have any other Senate WTF questions? Comment below with other issues I can clarify or try to answer.