Senate filibuster reform to speed movement on appointees

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Procedural changes approved by the Senate Thursday night fell short of some visions of dramatic filibuster reforms, but they will likely help agencies by putting sub-Cabinet appointees in place faster because of new limits on floor debate during confirmations.

In separate votes of 78-16 and 86-9, the Senate agreed to a deal between Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., designed to prevent the minority party from using delay tactics when a bill or nomination is brought to the floor. In return, the majority party agreed to allow the minority at least two amendments to each bill.

As a symbol of the polarization in Washington, the filibuster has been deployed in record numbers in recent years -- often to extract concessions on issues unrelated to nominations. Classic filibusters often required senators to literally stand and talk for days, but in recent years filibusters have been conducted behind the scenes.

Tabulations by David Waldman, a blogger for the left-leaning Daily Kos, show 385 cloture motions were filed between 1917, when the cloture rule was established, and 1988. But the past five and a half years alone have seen 359, with Republicans in the minority.

As the Senate geared up for the 113th Congress, Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., led an effort to drastically overhaul Senate rules to require senators wanting to filibuster to stand on the chamber floor before the public and speak until a 60-vote majority shuts down the talk.

The final compromise – valid through January 2015 -- includes language limiting debate on executive branch appointees and district judges. The amount of time such nominations can be delayed after an initial procedural vote is eight hours for appointees and two hours for judges, according to news reports, instead of the 30 hours allowed before.

All Maryland and Virginia senators voted for the rules change. The 16 who voted nay were Republicans, except independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

President Obama welcomed the changes as a chance to speed confirmation of both his legislative agenda and judicial nominees. “In my State of the Union last year, I urged Congress to take steps to fix the way they do business,” he said in a statement. “Today, I am pleased that a bipartisan group of Senators has agreed to take action. Too often over the past four years, a single Senator or a handful of Senators has been able to unilaterally block or delay bipartisan legislation for the sole purpose of making a political point.”

Merkley said, “These steps are modest and don’t address the core problem of the secret, silent filibuster, but they do include some important elements, providing flexibility on the motion to proceed and speeding up the confirmation process on nominations.”

Udall said the deal is “not as strong what many of us have been advocating,” but added it “alters the way we deal with nominations, conference committees and motions to proceed.”

A harsher reaction came from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, newly named chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, who warned that Obama’s agenda would continue to be blocked. "It's a baby step,” he told reporters Thursday before the rules were approved. "Does it help a little bit? Anything helps around here.”

The advocacy group Fix the Senate Now said that while the changes “may help with streamlining certain nominations -- potentially a significant step forward -- the agreement avoids measures that would actually raise the costs of Senate obstruction.”

Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, called the shortening of debate on nominations “an important step in its own right. The entire personnel system has far too often gotten bogged down in the Senate’s procedural swamp,” he told Government Executive. “That has not only clogged the calendar but made it hard to run the government -- or recruit good people willing to subject themselves to the process. Smoothing speed bumps on that road is unquestionably a good thing.”

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.