Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley Visits the Humphrey School to Explore the Future of the Filibuster

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley Visits the Humphrey School to Explore the Future of the Filibuster

Joshua Klopp, Editor

On March 24 the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs hosted Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley for a thoughtful conversation with Professor Larry Jacobs. They discussed the past, present, and future of filibusters in our nation’s congress. Senator Merkley presented his experience and insight that has led him to his conclusion that the “talking filibuster” must return if Congress is to be restored.

Senator Jeff Merkley is the junior senator from Oregon. Before his election to the U.S. Senate, Merkley was a five-term member of the Oregon House of Representatives. He served as the state’s Speaker from 2007- 2009. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008. He is known for being a progressive leader in the Senate on immigration issues. He has outwardly challenged President Trump’s policies regarding the southern border and finance reform. Senator Merkley serves on several Senate Committees such as the committee of Appropriations, Environment and Public Works, Budget, and Foreign Relations. 

Senator Merkley’s partner in conversation was Professor Larry Jacobs. Professor Jacobs is the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance and the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies. He is best known for his commentary and research, both of which have been published and discussed in a number of mass media outlets.

Their discussion began by analyzing the transformation from simple majority to supermajority. Diving into this history, Senator Merkely revealed that a simple majority was only abandoned because of wartime needs of the past. He also stated that since this change was made, filibuster has most prominently been used to prop up racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws. Senator Merkely then transitioned to emphasize that a supermajority protects the powerful. 

In the procedure known as cloture, which is the end of debate on a piece of legislation, the number of votes required for cloture is three-fifths of all senators, or 60 of the 100-member Senate. This means that if one side of the debate already has 41 votes, they can veto with little to no effort. Senator Merkley says what exemplifies the partisan gridlock that exists in today’s Senate is the “no-effort” filibuster.

The current situation, needing a three-fifths vote, has its positives and negatives. A person’s opinion on this most likely depends on which side of the majority they are on. This can be seen as an essential safeguard against a tyrannical majority or an enabler of institutional paralysis. According to Senator Merkely, the paralysis bit is the result of the “no-effort” filibuster. It has been given this name because if one side of the debate has 41 votes, they face no burden other than saying “I filibuster.” Merkely believes it is this reality that makes it difficult for the Senate to pass any meaningful legislation.

The main aspect of Senator Merkely’s proposal to restore the senate is to force senators to stand up on the floor of the Senate to hold up action on bills they object to. To bring back the “talking filibuster.” He also discussed how allowing germane amendments can positively contribute to this change. These amendments are defined as those which are “relevant or politically related to the proposed legislation.” Merkely stated that if there has been opportunity for both sides to propose germane amendments, then they can begin to use talking filibusters. This means they will have to carry on continuous debate. One speech following the other. This incentivizes both sides to compromise, as the minority will have to put in proper effort to block legislation and the majority will be opposed to having the floor tied up for long stretches of time.

In the conversation’s conclusion, Senator Merkely answered a question about how he stays optimistic with the current state of the senate.He responded by saying, “I’m not optimistic.” He cleared up his stance by adding, that since a three-fifths majority has been required,

Members of the senate started to be able to drive legislation that made the world better for themselves rather than the fundamentals for families: healthcare, housing, education, good paying jobs. That has accelerated over the last three decades leading to a massive inequality in wealth and income… the wealthy have multiple tools of lobbyist lawyers media campaigns. So now, I’ll have the filibuster and so it comes back full circle. See, if we don’t change the structure of our government, then you can’t actually put legislation up.

— Senator Jeff Merkley

Senator Merkley is confident in his proposal as he is adamant that it would bring the Senate back to the deliberative body it was designed to be, restore the incentives for compromise, and help to renew and strengthen our democracy.