How Fixing the Filibuster Will Help Fix Climate Change

This week the US Senate has the chance to take a big step forward for the climate, even though it will not be voting on any bill directly related to climate change. If this seems paradoxical, it isn’t really. This Wednesday may be the Senate’s best chance to fix the filibuster—a procedural tool that over the last two years was used by conservatives to prevent climate change legislation ever making it into law.

According to the textbook definition of a filibuster, it’s a procedural maneuver that allows a minority of senators to block a vote on a particular piece of legislation they believe is especially harmful. If one or more senator decides to launch a filibuster, a supermajority of sixty senators (rather than fifty-one) is needed to pass the bill in question. Traditionally a filibuster was maintained by one or more senator standing on the Senate floor and talking continuously, effectively stalling debate on a bill and preventing a vote from taking place. Sixty senators would have to vote to end a filibuster and force the vote—but in order to keep the filibuster going, the minority had to be willing to stay on the floor under the glare of TV cameras, and publicly defend their actions.

Today however the filibuster is used much differently—and with tragic consequences. No longer do senators who decide to block a piece of legislation have to stand on the floor defending their decision. Any senator who doesn’t like a given bill can simply indicate he or she plans to filibuster, bringing debate screeching to a halt and preventing the bill from even being introduced unless sixty senators who support it can be found.

This has made it very difficult to pass major legislation. It’s why health care reform took so long to make it into law last year, and why the Senate still hasn’t passed an oil drilling reform bill in the wake of the BP disaster. Most importantly, it’s why the Senate could not enact climate change legislation in 2010. From a tool allowing a minority of dedicated senators to bravely defend their position on the Senate floor, the filibuster has become a rule routinely abused to prevent a vote on legislation the US public supports. It’s time to change this. While elimination of the filibuster would be a mistake, senators who choose to stall debate should be required to do so in full view on the Senate floor, and to continue defending their actions in public.

Fortunately, on Wednesday the Senate has a chance to re-make the rules for how it operates. According to Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), Article I of the US Constitution indicates the Senate may set its own rules at the beginning of each “new” Senate (when newly-elected senators take office). Yet the Senate hasn’t taken the opportunity to change the rules since 1975, meaning it is still constrained by outdated procedures that no longer make sense in the culture of politics today. Udall also argues the Constitution ensures a vote on changing the rules, if made at the start of the Senate session, only needs a simply majority of fifty-one votes to pass. In other words you can’t filibuster a vote to reform the filibuster. On Wednesday when senators return to Washington, DC they have a historic chance to prevent future filibuster abuses.

In an almost unprecedented show of support for reform, every single Democratic senator returning to DC has signed a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid, in support of changing the way the filibuster is used. Reid is now negotiating with Republican leaders, trying to decide what if any kind of reform should be brought up for a vote. If Reid comes forward with a strong proposal and it passes on Wednesday, the implications for the future of climate change legislation would be huge. It would be foolish to pass up this once-in-a-Senate opportunity.

Photo credit: Brenda Clarke