[Viewpoint] Filibusters may have a place in Korea

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[Viewpoint] Filibusters may have a place in Korea

In the United States Senate, filibuster reform has recently become a hot-button issue.

The Democratic Party failed to win the required 60 seats to stop filibusters as a result of the January by-elections in Massachusetts. The move to reform filibusters is gaining steam as U.S. President Barack Obama’s health insurance reforms sputter. At the same time, other major policies can be blocked by Republican filibusters.

A filibuster, also known as “talking out a bill,” refers to a form of obstruction in the legislature whereby an individual or group of lawmakers try to prevent a vote by lengthening debates on the floor.

This type of parliamentary procedure was initially used to ensure that bills were reviewed properly and to help political factions reach a compromise in the legislature.

In a bicameral system, filibusters also work to cool heated legislative debates in the House of Representatives. A move to end a filibuster is only effective if more than 60 senators agree to such a move.

Recently, Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa who heads the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, recently submitted a resolution to reduce the number of votes to “invoke cloture” to 51. Many Senators also said filibusters should be stopped or weakened. Many scholars and columnists agree as well.

Filibusters, it’s clear, are overused. Because of frequent filibusters, the Senate often faces legislative gridlock. According to Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, about 8 percent of major bills in the 1960s faced filibusters or filibuster threats. The ratio hit 70 percent in 2000. Votes to invoke cloture, therefore, took place more frequently. More than 40 such votes took place in the Senate over the past year.

President Obama and White House aides said that Republican filibusters present a huge obstacle as they try to steer the nation, adding that they also are a primary reason behind the public’s deepening mistrust of the government. The administration appeared ready to make filibusters a political issue in the midterm election to enliven Democratic voters.

And yet, many people also argue that filibusters should stay. They say filibusters are the result of polarization in politics - not the direct cause of the problem. They add that the procedure allows the Senate to listen to the opinions of the minority party and create regulations that will be accepted by a larger portion of the population.

If Obama’s health insurance reform fails, more people will argue that filibusters should be scrapped or weakened. However, voters do not care too much about parliamentary procedures. Furthermore, Senator Harry Reid, the Democrat floor leader, disagrees with Harkin’s proposal. The Republican leadership also criticized the Democratic Party for having forgotten its history of blocking Republican-backed legislation with filibusters.

To change the regulations governing Senate procedures, the support of 67 senators is required. It is, therefore, not easy for filibusters to be scrapped or weakened.

Could the filibuster system improve the National Assembly’s procedures? Representatives Kwon Young-jin, Park Sang-cheon and Yoo Jeong-bok each submitted bills to introduce filibusters to end the extreme confrontation between the ruling and opposition parties and resolve the subsequent legislative gridlock. The three bills are currently pending in the steering committee.

Taking into account the National Assembly’s past, it is necessary to set up a system in which lawmakers are given enough time and opportunity to vocalize their positions during deliberations on a contentious bill. The National Assembly could indeed introduce filibusters in order to ensure active debate and improve legislative efficiency through majority rule.

Of course, there should be guarantees that legislative procedures will not be physically blocked until voting in the main session. Filibusters are permitted within the allowed time period at committees and main sessions, but the National Assembly should allow lawmakers to filibuster only during the main session in order to reduce the risk of a delay in the legislative deliberation.

The U.S. Senate values prudence more than effectiveness, and it allows a single lawmaker to carry out a filibuster.

The National Assembly, however, should establish a different tradition of allowing a filibuster in cases where more than one-fifth of incumbent lawmakers agree. A move to invoke cloture should require the backing of three-fifths of the lawmakers. A mediation process should also go into effect as soon as a filibuster begins.

If the National Assembly adopts filibusters, ruling and opposition lawmakers must put themselves in each other’s shoes. They must obey the regulation to improve the quality of debates and deliberations on bills.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a political science professor at the Seoul National University

By Park Chan-wook
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