The purpose of parliamentary law—the rules that govern legislative procedure—is to “enable an assembly, with the least possible friction, to deliberate upon questions in which it is interested, and to ascertain and express its deliberate sense or will on these questions” General Henry M. Robert, Parliamentary Law 3 (1923) (General Robert authored Robert’s Rules of Order, an influential work on parliamentary procedure which is still commonly used today.). So to prevent impassioned minorities from creating too much friction by abusing the filibuster, the Senate implemented a procedure called “cloture.”
The U.S. Senate’s online glossary, explains cloture as follows:
cloture – The only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter, and thereby overcome a filibuster. Under the cloture rule (Rule XXII), the Senate may limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by vote of three-fifths of the full Senate, normally 60 votes.
Yesterday, the Senate voted for cloture on the debate about the government health care takeover. Even setting aside the vote-purchasing spectacle, I believe that in these circumstances cloture was inappropriate. In general, I don’t see anything wrong with a rule that allows the legislature to avoid a filibuster if it is simply an abuse of procedure designed to derail the legislative process. After all, we don’t require unanimity among our lawmakers; a majority is usually enough. But in this case cloture wasn’t used just to avoid procedural delay tactics; it was used to avoid important debate and discussion.
The Senate democrats’ draft health care bill, called the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” is 2,074 pages long. If it is implemented, it will drastically change the way in which health care is provided and paid for in the United States. Low-end estimates predict its cost at close to a trillion dollars during the first decade. Furthermore, there are important questions to be resolved over which the public is deeply divided. Will it cover abortions? Will it subsidize reckless lifestyles? Will it cover non-citizens? How will the country pay for it? How will the system deal with shortages? Who will decide when a medical procedure is appropriate? Are the government’s recent recommendations for less frequent cancer testing for women just the first step in a movement to ration all medical tests? Will this plan avoid the mistakes that led to the failure of other government-run health care programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veterans’ Administration?
I am irreconcilably opposed to government involvement in health care for reasons of principle, but even those in favor must recognize that these questions need to be answered. To successfully implement a program of this size and complexity, congress would need more than a mere thirty hours to debate, plan, and evaluate. Cloture in these circumstances is foolhardy.