Lieberman Betrayal Illustrates Why Senate Filibuster Rules Must Change

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on
Senator Joe Lieberman's successful maneuver to eliminate any form of public option from the Senate health reform bill makes one thing perfectly clear: to pass the most important elements of the progressive agenda, the Senate must change its filibuster rules.

The current 60-vote requirement to cut off debate empowers a tiny minority of Senators to prevent up or down votes on measures that clearly have majority support in the Senate, and overwhelming support among the American people. It is a fundamentally undemocratic procedure that is now used regularly by the most entrenched economic interests in America to prevent change.

If it is not changed, it will severely limit the ability of President Obama and the Democratic leadership to enact the most important changes that are necessary to build a foundation for long-term prosperity in America.

The 60-vote cloture requirement would not be so problematic if it were actually used only to assure a reasonable debate on a given issue. In practice, it has come to be used over the last several decades as a means of preventing an up or down vote - or allowing the minority to fundamentally constrain the will of the majority; to allow the tail to wag the dog.

In the current case, the public option is supported by 55 of the Senate's Democrats, a majority of the House, and 70% of the American people. It is opposed by the minority Republicans in the House and Senate, the insurance industry, and one key "Independent" Senator: Joe Lieberman.
Let's recall that Joe Lieberman has always been the "go-to guy" for the biggest private insurers. He was defeated in a Democratic primary in Connecticut, defied the will of the Party by running as an independent, and won mainly on the strength of Republican votes. Then he became a turncoat in the General Election - backing McCain over the Democratic nominee Barack Obama - and campaigned against the President throughout America.

Now the Senate rules empower him to limit the scope of health care reform, tax policy, and just about every other item on the Democratic agenda. Why does he have more power than Progressives like Senator Sherrod Brown? Because he could care less if the Senate ever passes health care reform - or any other piece of fundamentally progressive legislation. His best alternative to a negotiated settlement is simply "No." That gives him the same kind of power possessed by a suicide bomber. If he doesn't get his way, he's happy to see the whole place go up in smoke.

The American people did not elect Joe Lieberman - or the candidate he backed as President - but Senate rules have given him an effective veto over legislation. It is one thing for a Senator who would be the 50th vote to have that kind of power. But in a democracy, where the majority is supposed to rule, it is outrageous that he is in a position to call the shots when we now allegedly have an overwhelming Democratic majority of 60 Democrats to 40 Republicans.

The need for change has become more intense over the last two decades, because the polarization of the Senate has substantially increased. Senate comity might have limited the use of the filibuster in the past - but no more. The Republican party of "No" has no intention of using the filibuster simply to assure adequate debate. They intend to use every tool they can to stop the Democratic agenda cold. It is madness for Democrats - who control the Senate - to willingly hand them this powerful weapon.

The Senate rule that 60 votes are needed to cut off debate is not contained in the Constitution. It is an internal Senate rule set by the body and has been changed many times in the country's history.

There was no cloture provision in the rules through much of the 19th Century. In fact, the first Senate filibuster did not occur until 1837, and actual filibusters were used rarely to stop legislation.In 1917, at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic Senate enacted a rule for cloture of debate. From 1917 to 1949 the requirement was two-thirds of those voting.
In 1949 the requirement was changed to two-thirds of the entire Senate membership. In 1959 it was restored to two-thirds of those voting.Finally, in 1975 the rule was changed so that three-fifths of the Senate membership - generally 60 - could cut off debate.

In the last two decades the number of filibusters has exploded. In the 1960s, no Senate term had more than seven filibusters. Since 2000, no term has had fewer than 49 filibusters. In the 110th Congress, when Republicans were in the minority, there were 112 cloture votes.

In practice today, any significant piece of legislation requires 60 votes - not a 51-person majority vote - making the Senate a truly undemocratic institution.
The Senate rules of the 111th Congress require that 67 votes are needed to change the rules again during the session. But there is little question that a majority can set the rules of the body (just as they do in the House) at the beginning of a Senate term. In fact, constitutionally, 51 Senators could probably change the rules during the term as well.

In 1892, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Ballin that changes in Senate rules could be achieved by a simple majority vote. It ruled in part that:

The constitution empowers each house to determine its rules of proceedings. [...] The power to make rules is not one which once exercised is exhausted. It is a continuous power, always subject to be exercised by the house, and, within the limitations suggested, absolute and beyond the challenge of any other body or tribunal.
The constitution provides that 'a majority of each [house] shall constitute a quorum to do business.' In other words, when a majority are present the house is in a position to do business. Its capacity to transact business is then established, created by the mere presence of a majority, and does not depend upon the disposition or assent or action of any single [144 U.S. 1, 6] member or fraction of the majority present. All that the constitution requires is the presence of a majority, and when that majority are present the power of the house arises.

Of course many Progressives will say, oh…not so fast… what happens when the Republicans are once again in the majority? Won't they undo everything we've accomplished if we don't have a filibuster? Three points:

First, fundamentally Democrats are the party of change and Republicans the Party of the status quo. The Senate rules are mainly used by entrenched defenders of the status quo to keep things the way they are. Over time, the advocates of change will benefit by making the Senate rules more "change friendly."

Second, most major progressive structural changes become very popular once they are in place. Try fundamentally changing Social Security or Medicare - even with 50 Senate votes. We stopped the privatization of Social Security by making it radioactive among the voters. Besides, if we don't change the Senate rules, we won't be able to pass many of the most critical elements in our agenda in the first place.

Third, we don't have to completely eliminate the filibuster to make the Senate more democratic (with a small d). The rule could be set, for instance, so that while it takes 60 votes to cut off debate the first time cloture is invoked, two days later it takes 57 votes, two days after that 55 votes, two days later 53 and finally 51. That would allow a minority to demand a vigorous debate. It would allow a minority to exact a legislative cost for the passage of controversial legislation. But it would not ultimately allow a minority to block the will of the majority - which is the current state of affairs.

Any number of other formulas is possible, but the bottom line is clear. If the voters want fundamental change, the majority of the House and Senate want fundamental change, and the President of the United States will sign a bill creating fundamental change, a tiny minority of Senators - people like Joe Lieberman -- should not be empowered by archaic Senate rules to stop fundamental change.

Robert Creamer's recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Added 18.06.2018
Daniel Wagner: "My prediction Korean War will be formally ended, the peninsula will be denuclearised, and a lasting peace will be the result."
Added 14.06.2018
Extract: PiS [ the ruling Law and Justice party] has established the most significant addition to the Polish social safety net since 1989: the Family 500+ program. Launched in 2016, Family 500+ embodies the nationalism, traditional family values, and social consciousness that the PiS seeks to promote. The program pays families 500 złoty ($144) per month to provide care for a second or subsequent child...........The program has been enormously popular. Some 2.4 million families took advantage of it in the first two years. The benefit, equivalent to 40% of the minimum wage, has almost wiped out extreme poverty for children in Poland, reducing it by an estimated 70-80%........... Liberal pro-European politicians and policymakers are not convinced. They complain that such a generous family benefit will weaken work incentives and blow up the government budget. But initial evidence suggests that Family 500+ has actually increased economic activity. It has also reversed the post-communist decline in fertility, increased wages (particularly for women), and enabled families to buy school materials, take vacations, buy more clothes for their kids, and rely less on high-priced credit for basic household needs. And, thanks to rapid economic growth, the government deficit has steadily fallen, not grown.
Added 12.06.2018
The depths of hypocrisy of the Republican Party in supporting Trump’s meeting with the North Korean dictator in Singapore are hard to plumb. This is a party whose leading members adopted the Ostrich Foreign Policy Principle for decades. If you don’t like a country’s government or political and economic system, pretend it does not exist.
Added 12.06.2018
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has spoken out against China’s strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and electronic jammers, and, more recently, the landing of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft at Woody Island. There are, Mattis warned, “consequences to China ignoring the international community.” But what consequences?
Added 12.06.2018
With a general election approaching in September, Swedish voters are being warned that now it’s their turn to be targeted by Russian interference in the democratic process. According to Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which is leading the country’s efforts to counter foreign-influence operations, such interference is very likely, and citizens should be on the lookout for disinformation and fake news.
Added 11.06.2018
Extract: "While the presidency has grown stronger over the years, during the Trump administration Congress has been timid and subordinate. That is because the leaders of the Republican Party – which controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate – are frightened of Trump’s base. They cannot afford to alienate the roughly 30-35% of Americans who passionately back him, ignore his personal transgressions, tolerate his degradation of the country’s civil discourse, favor his brutal treatment of immigrant families, and don’t mind that he is leaving the US almost friendless in the world."
Added 08.06.2018
Has North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, made a strategic decision to trade away his nuclear program, or is he just engaged in another round of deceptive diplomacy, pretending that he will denuclearize in exchange for material benefits for his impoverished country? This is, perhaps, the key question in the run-up to the summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12. Until then, no one will know the answer, perhaps not even Kim himself.
Added 07.06.2018
Some analysts even project that, before long, Facebook will hold more data on its users than any government. Meanwhile, it makes a lot of money from this data. Its advertising revenues came up to around US$40 billion in 2017 (up 50% from 2016). With Google, it holds an 84% market share in online advertising.
Added 05.06.2018
Roseanne Barr is an American comedian whose fictional TV character of the same name is a working-class Trump supporter. For those who remember the show “All in the Family,” she might be usefully compared to Archie Bunker, the crude proletarian patriarch from Queens, New York. Barr’s show was swiftly canceled late last month by the television network ABC, not for anything her “character” said in her show, but for a tweet in which she described Valerie Jarrett, an African-American former adviser to Barack Obama, as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.”
Added 04.06.2018

When Donald Trump was elected, I, like many others feared what his presidency might do to the country. A year and a half into his term in office, our concerns have been justified. 

Added 01.06.2018
Extract from the article: "While the West’s relative decline is almost inevitable, its economic dysfunction is not. Yet pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Why undertake difficult reforms if a dark future seems preordained? As a result, accepting and anxious pessimists tend to elect governments that duck difficult decisions (witness Germany’s grand coalition), while angry pessimists make matters worse (by voting for Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda or for Brexit, for example). It doesn’t have to be this way. As French President Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated, bold leaders can succeed with a message of hope, openness, and inclusion, and by promoting a vision of progress based on credible reforms."
Added 30.05.2018
It has been nearly two years since the United Kingdom narrowly voted in favor of leaving the European Union. As the march toward Brexit – formally set for the end of next March – proceeds, fundamental questions about the nature of the future UK-EU relationship remain unanswered. Instead, every time a tough decision must be made in the negotiations in Brussels, British ministers kick the can down the road, or even into the long grass. This is somewhat surprising. Apparently, none of the politicians and newspaper editors who plotted for years to get the UK out of the EU thought much about what would happen if their machinations succeeded.
Added 30.05.2018
Discussions are now underway to establish a system of joint deposit insurance for eurozone banks. Proponents of the scheme, with the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) taking the lead, point out that deposit insurance would avert the danger of a run on banks in times of crisis. While this argument is true, critics emphasize the disparity in risks, owing to the high share of bad loans on the balance sheets of banks in some countries. To address this risk disparity and move ahead with the plan, balance sheets will need to be cleaned up before considering the next step. While the share of bad loans for banks in the stable eurozone countries is just 2%, the most recently published International Monetary Fund statistics, from last April, show a share of 11% for Ireland, 16% for Italy, 40% for Cyprus, and 46% for Greece.
Added 29.05.2018
Trump’s decision cannot be justified by any breach of the agreement on Iran’s part. It is, rather, a return to the old, largely unsuccessful US policy of confrontation with Iran. The only difference this time is that the Trump administration seems determined to go to the brink of war – or even beyond – to get its way. If the administration has any plans for keeping Iran’s nuclear program in check in the absence of the nuclear deal, then it is keeping them a secret. Judging by some of the administration’s rhetoric, it would appear that airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities are on the table. But bombing would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not stop it. Would Trump then consider a massive ground war to occupy the country and topple the regime? We know all too well how that strategy worked the last time it was tried.
Added 28.05.2018
US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel his planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un represents a diplomatic coup for the North Korean leader, and an even bigger victory for China. In the space of just a few months, Kim’s image has gone from that of international pariah to that of thwarted peacemaker.
Added 23.05.2018
The good news is that the United States and China appear to have backed away from the precipice of a trade war. While vague in detail, a May 19 agreement defuses tension and commits to further negotiation. The bad news is that the framework of negotiations is flawed: A deal with any one country will do little to resolve America’s fundamental economic imbalances that have arisen in an interconnected world.
Added 21.05.2018
The cryptocurrency revolution, which started with bitcoin in 2009, claims to be inventing new kinds of money. There are now nearly 2,000 cryptocurrencies, and millions of people worldwide are excited by them. What accounts for this enthusiasm, which so far remains undampened by warnings that the revolution is a sham? One must bear in mind that attempts to reinvent money have a long history. As the sociologist Viviana Zelizer points out in her book The Social Meaning of Money: “Despite the commonsense idea that ‘a dollar is a dollar is a dollar,’ everywhere we look people are constantly creating different kinds of money.” Many of these innovations generate real excitement, at least for a while. As the medium of exchange throughout the world, money, in its various embodiments, is rich in mystique. We tend to measure people’s value by it. It sums things up like nothing else. And yet it may consist of nothing more than pieces of paper that just go round and round in circles of spending. So its value depends on belief and trust in those pieces of paper. One might call it faith.
Added 19.05.2018
The protests that rippled across Russia ahead of Vladimir Putin’s fourth inauguration as president followed a familiar script. Police declared the gatherings illegal, and the media downplayed their size. Alexey Navalny, the main organizer and Russia’s de facto opposition leader, was arrested in dramatic fashion, dragged out of a rally in Moscow by police. On May 15, he was sentenced to 30 days in prison. More than 1,600 protesters across the country were beaten and detained.
Added 16.05.2018
Many knowledgeable people dismiss the prospect of advanced AGI [=Artificial General Intelligence]. Some, ..........,argue that it is impossible for AI to outsmart humanity........Yet other distinguished worry that AGI could pose a serious or even existential threat to humanity. With experts lining up on both sides of the debate, the rest of us should keep an open mind.
Added 15.05.2018
The world’s most important bilateral relationship – between the United States and China – is also one of its most inscrutable. Bedeviled by paradoxes, misperceptions, and mistrust, it is a relationship that has become a source of considerable uncertainty and, potentially, severe instability. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the brewing bilateral trade war.