An Open Letter to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein About Her (lame) Position on the Filibuster

By Steven Hill, Huffington Post, March 4, 2011

Dear Senator Feinstein,

Thank you for your response* to my letter, but I completely disagree with your position. The filibuster is anti-majoritarian, as is the US Senate itself. Senator Feinstein, you and Sen Boxer represent 38 million Californians while the two Senators from Wyoming represent a half a million people. Thus, each individual from Wyoming has much greater representation than a Californian; if the US Senate was a department store, you and Sen Boxer would be waiting on 75 times more customers than the Wyoming Senators.

It can hardly be a coincidence that for every dollar in federal taxes we Californians send to Washington DC we only receive back about 75 cents. Where does the other 25 cents go? To states like Wyoming, as well as to Alaska, the Dakotas, and other low population conservative states. It’s clear that this over representation of low population states has the effect of favoring conservative states and hurting populous “blue” states like California, Illinois and New York.

You and Sen. Boxer clearly punch “below your weight,” in terms of influence in the Senate, and this under-representation goes a long way toward explaining why. Despite the damage this is doing to our state, you and Senator Boxer say nothing about this unequal arrangement. Why is that?

That’s why equal representation in the Senate was opposed by many of the leading Founders of our country, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, as an infringement on majority rule. Over representation of low population states in the Senate perpetuated slavery for decades; resolutions to abolish slavery passed numerous times in the US House only to die in the Senate. In Pres. Obama’s first two years in office, nearly five hundred bills on important issues like global warming, the BP oil spill, food safety, funding for the U.S. Postal Service, job security for wounded veterans, vision care for children, a bill to improve absentee ballot voting, screening for diabetes and more were passed by the House only to die in the Senate.

In addition, the Senate is hardly a mirror of our society. As you well know, there are only 17 women out of 100 and a handful of racial minority Senators, including no African Americans. Two hundred years after our founding, the Senate is still an elite body of white men! How can this be? Surely when you look around the chamber before an important vote, it must strike you that this elite club is hardly representative of America today, but rather reflective of America in the 18th and 19th centuries. How could that not affect the policy that comes out of the Senate?

Here is how horrible the situation has become: today, in order to pass any legislation in the Senate, it is necessary to garner support from 60 out of 100 Senators (instead of 51 out of 100), and even more absurdly the 41 Senators who wage the filibuster like a club only represent a third of the nation. In other words, Senators representing a third of Americans are able to block what Senators representing two-thirds of Americans want. The Senate has become paralyzed by the worst form of minority rule.

Indeed, the Senate has become a sclerotic, unrepresentative, elite club, like Britain’s House of Lords, that is severely retarding the ability of our country to move forward. The Senate is hardly the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” as you Senators like to call yourselves, instead it is a policy graveyard where badly needed legislation goes to die. I would think you would be outraged at what has happened to the upper chamber in which you sit, and would be doing your utmost to sound the alarm. The fact that you have not is clear evidence that, unfortunately, you have become part of the problem. It’s Animal Farm time in the United States Senate.


Steven Hill
author: “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy”
* —–Original Message—–
Sent: Mar 3, 2011 5:51 PM
Subject: U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein responding to your message

Dear Mr. Hill:

Thank you for contacting me concerning the use of filibusters in the United States Senate. I appreciate hearing from you and welcome the opportunity to respond.

The filibuster is a long-standing Senate practice that allows a Senator unlimited time to speak on the floor of the Senate. Current Senate rules allow for three-fifths of the Senate to vote to invoke cloture to limit consideration of a bill or nomination and break a “procedural filibuster.” By providing the minority in the Senate an instrument for extending debate on nominations and bills, the filibuster can serve a vital role in protecting the rights of the minority and encouraging the majority to seek compromise.

In the long history of the Senate, the filibuster has been an important tool for both parties when in the minority. For example, in December 21, 2005, Democrats in the Senate, using a procedural filibuster, blocked an amendment to a defense reauthorization bill which would have allowed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), some of our nation’s most precious wilderness.

I share your concerns over the recent, unprecedented increase in the use of the filibuster. Debate is at the heart of a deliberate body like the Senate; however, in the 111th Congress, legislative action was subjected to extraordinary levels of obstruction by the minority party. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Senate voted on cloture on a motion to proceed 64 times during the last two Congresses. To be clear, this means that the minority party was obstructing even debating legislation.

You may be interested to know that the Senate has considered a number of bills in the 112th Congress to reform the filibuster process and cut down on the use of delay tactics. S.Res. 29, which was introduced by Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), will waive the reading of an amendment if the amendment has been submitted at least 72 hours before the motion and is available in print or electronic form. The Senate also passed S.Res. 28, introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), to address the practice of secret holds. Secret holds are an informal device which permit a single Senator or any number of Senators to stop floor consideration of measures that are available to be scheduled by the Senate. This new rule will require any Senator objecting to proceeding to a bill or nomination to publicly disclose the objection within two days of the senate being in session.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) also entered into an informal agreement in which Senator McConnell agreed to reduce the use of the filibuster by the minority and in return, Senator Reid agreed to allow more amendments from the minority to be considered on the Senate floor.

Be assured that I share your concerns on the unprecedented use of the filibuster, but I believe that Congress must be cautious about any dramatic changes to the rules. The filibuster serves an integral role in protecting the rights of the minority, which can change from one Congress to the next. Please know that I appreciate your thoughts on this matter and will keep your comments in mind should the Senate further consider the use of the filibuster.

Once again, thank you for writing to me. If you have any additional questions or comments, please feel free to contact my Washington, D.C. office at (202) 224-3841. Best regards.

Sincerely yours,
Dianne Feinstein
United States Senator

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