“I Object!”—Withholding Consent and Filibustering

Legislative 101 | February 4, 2017

These rules were literally designed to protect against tyranny.

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The Two Hardball Tactics Your Senators Should Use to Resist Trump’s Agenda

The Senate minority is empowered to resist. Democrats may be in the minority, but that doesn’t mean that your Democratic senator is powerless to resist Trump’s agenda. The Senate is a peculiar legislative body, with lots of arcane rules designed to protect the minority from being trampled by an irresponsible majority.

These rules were literally designed to protect against tyranny. In short, they were made for moments like today, with a would-be autocrat in the White House and both legislative chambers controlled by Republican majorities that have so far shown themselves unwilling to stand up to the president.

This isn’t about casting noble, losing votes. This is about political hardball. Among the tools that your senators has at their disposal are two very powerful ways to slow or stop proceedings in the Senate:

  1. Withholding Consent
  2. Filibustering

This one-pager will explain both of these tactics so that you can effectively pressure your senators to pursue them with gusto.

But Wait—Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Senator Nice Guy is not your friend when our fundamental values are facing existential threats. Trump and his congressional lackeys are threatening basic tenets of American democracy and endangering our friends, families, and neighbors. And while Senators pride themselves on being collegial, the “let’s just get along” strategy is simply unacceptable when policies like the Muslim and refugee ban are on the table. Our moral responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of our society is greater than any obligation to play nice in the Senate.

Besides, there’s nothing new here. Trump’s Senate lackeys spent the last eight years sharpening these tools to stall and defeat the agenda of a historically popular president with a strong mandate for change. When in the minority, Republicans broke all historical records for obstruction, filibustering over 600 times and infamously refusing to even give the President’s Supreme Court nominee a hearing, much less a vote.

Our current president is historically unpopular, and was elected with by a small minority of voters (+Vladimir Putin). And yet this president is seeking to remake American in his own corrupt, bigoted image. This is precisely why the senate procedural tools exist, and the Democratic Senate minority would be foolish not to use these tools in service of democracy.

Senate Hardball Tactic #1: Withholding Consent

How the Senate really works: unanimous consent. The rules of the Senate ensure that individual senators have immense power to interrupt the regular course of business. For example, Senators have the power to speak their minds on the floor, raise points of order and other motions, call for votes and quorum calls, and offer amendments, among other things.

Because of this wide leeway given to individual senators, the only way the majority can ensure the Senate’s day-to-day business runs smoothly is by asking for the “unanimous consent” (UC) of all senators to operate. Under normal circumstances, the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate negotiate “unanimous consent agreements” that set the schedule for and structure of debate on the Senate floor and waive pesky procedural hurdles. These UC agreements basically just mean “We’re all going to agree to shut up so we can get stuff done today.”

As the name implies, “unanimous consent” only works if no one objects, so if you don’t like what the Trump Administration or the Senate is doing, urge your senator to object to all “UC” requests. Your senator simply needs to be on the Senate floor when a UC request is offered and say “I object!”

The power to delay is the power to win. Without unanimous consent agreements, every single thing the Senate does takes longer, because the Senate leadership has to go through tedious additional processes to move forward with business. Committee hearings will be delayed, 15-minute votes on mundane Senate business at inconvenient times will be required (much to the distress of senators who hate working the weekend), and hours and hours of debate will have to be logged before reaching final votes.

A single senator engaging in a single act of withholding consent can delay Senate action for days. And just think: all the time spent on this time-consuming, tedious procedure is time that can’t be spent rubber-stamping President’s Trump agenda. When we delay, we win.

Hold On There

Senate Procedural Tool #2: Filibustering

Talking the issue to death. The Senate minority party’s most powerful tool is the filibuster. Filibustering is when a senator or a group of senators hold the floor of the Senate and refuse to stand down. As long as a senator holds the floor and continues talking, no further legislation can pass. When executed as part of a group, this can stop business in the Senate right in its tracks.

In the old “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” days, filibustering meant speaking on the floor of the Senate for as long as you physically could. Today, the mere threat of a filibuster forces the majority party to get 60 votes to end debate (aka, reach “cloture”) and move forward on the legislation. The Republicans currently have 52 votes in the Senate, eight fewer than what they need to stop filibusters, so if you don’t want a certain bill or nomination to pass, it’s critical that your senators act to keep the debate going.

The 60 vote cloture threshold applies in many, but not all, cases. The President’s cabinet nominees only require 51 votes. Some big annual budget legislation only requires this bare majority too. But for most legislation and for Supreme Court nominees, breaking the filibuster will require 60 votes.

Being “Opposed” Isn’t Enough

This is how Senate battles are really won. Righteous tweets and speeches are nice. Votes against the Trump agenda are nice too. But the one-two punch of these hardball tactics is every Senate resister’s most powerful tool today. Senators who decline to use them when the moment calls are essentially agreeing to fight the Trump agenda with both hands tied behind their backs. There is nothing principled about that: our family, friends and neighbors need us to stand indivisible with them and fight with all the tools we can.

Don’t take “no” for an answer. Your senators really do have the power to delay or block much of the Trump agenda, but they have to be willing to do more than just vote “no.” For those senators who claim to fully oppose Trump’s agenda, they must also be willing to object to unanimous consent requests and initiate filibusters. These Senate procedural tools are there to be used, so tell your senators to use them.

As long as we stand indivisible, we can resist, and together we will win.