Want to Get More Healthcare Bills Passed? Fix the Filibuster, Suggests a Senator

Derick Alison
Derick Alison
7 Min Read

WASHINGTON — The Senate could get a lot more done on healthcare and other issues if the rules for holding a filibuster were changed, a senator and his former chief of staff said Wednesday.

“Think about, for example, drug prices, where 80% of Americans think every drug should be negotiated so we get the same fair price as the rest of the world. But we can’t pass it” because of the filibuster rules, said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

Bipartisan gun control legislation — including a bill that was spearheaded by former Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) — also failed for the same reason, he continued. The senators agreed that “surely we can do better background checks — they created a very narrow set of provisions compared to what was envisioned after the Sandy Hook massacre. And even that failed due to the filibuster.”

Merkley and Mike Zamore, his former chief of staff, appeared at an event here at the Center for American Progress to showcase their new book, Filibustered! How to Fix the Broken Senate and Save America.

The way the Senate works today “is a far cry and a total historical anomaly from what came before,” Zamore said. According to the diary of Sen. William Maclay, a member of the Anti-Administration Party who served in the very first Senate, when that body took up its first bill — which dealt with imposing taxes on imports — “they pondered the amendments everyone had to offer, they plowed their way, in sometimes tedious fashion, through the minutia that everyone wanted to raise, because of their sectional interests or their ideological interests … But at the end of it, they had an up-or-down vote. That was the way the Senate worked.” Furthermore, bills only required a simple majority of more than 50 votes to pass.

It continued that way for most of the next 200 years, up through the 1990s, when “the partial birth abortion ban and the ban on assault weapons passed with fewer than 60 votes,” he said. But not any more.

Under the Senate’s current rules, “a filibuster allows any senator to hold up the passage of a bill unless 60 of their colleagues vote to cut off debate,” Ben Olinsky, senior vice president for structural reform and governance at the Center for American Progress, said in his introduction to the panel. “A single senator can simply signal they want to hold a bill, to prevent its passage.”

When the Southern Democrats were fighting against civil rights bills in the 1960s, “they cultivated a myth that the Senate from the beginning was a ‘super-majority’ body,” said Merkley. However, “the founders were absolutely clear that it should be a simple majority and democracy should never be stood on its head.”

One reason they were so passionate about this was that when the country was still a federation of states rather than a republic, “they required a super-majority [to pass bills] and they were paralyzed,” Merkley said. “They couldn’t raise the funds to fend off Shay’s Rebellion, and they couldn’t raise the funds to pay the pensions for the Revolutionary War veterans.”

Merkley and Zamore proposed changing the Senate procedures back to something closer to the way it originally functioned. Under their proposal, when a new bill was proposed, “we’d have a 1-hour debate on bringing it to the floor,” instead of talking about it for a week, Merkley said. Republicans and Democrats would both be able to propose amendments to the bill — up to 10 amendments for each side — as long as they were relevant, “because being able to put forward amendments is a key piece of what it means to be a senator.”

That would be followed by a period of debate “focused solely on the final passage of the bill,” he continued. “Everybody could speak for as long as they want to, twice.” Once all the speakers were finished, then the senators could vote on the bill’s passage. And if, during the process, both sides were to reach a compromise, “you could still use the existing tool of cloture to close debate and wrap things up. So you’re not getting rid of cloture, but you’re adding this dimension of continuous talking with a period of extended debate.”

At a time when people are losing faith in government, fixing the filibuster is more important than ever, Zamore said. “When government routinely fails to deliver on the things people care about, people understandably start doubting the purpose of the government … People do not understand the structural problems. And obviously there are a bunch of problems with our political system right now.”

“We don’t profess to say that fixing the filibuster makes everything hunky dory,” he added. “But the filibuster is a big piece of the story. The routine ability of the minority to hijack the agenda … has broken that democratic feedback loop, and that is directly related to all of the challenges that we are seeing in so many spaces right now that imperil the whole idea of democracy.”

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    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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