Chris Shays (opinion): Can Roe reversal finally put an end to the filibuster?

The U.S. Capitol Building on March 11 in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Capitol Building on March 11 in Washington, D.C.

Anna Moneymaker / TNS

I believe a woman has the inherent right to terminate her pregnancy, but I do not blame the Court for overturning Roe v Wade.

I blame state legislators for writing laws unduly restricting that right, and Congress for not doing what it can, and should do, to protect that right.

Roe v. Wade was the Supreme Court’s attempt to do what the state legislators, and Congress in particular, failed to do. It was more law than a Constitutional resolution. And it enabled lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to avoid doing what they failed to do: pass thoughtful legislation to logically provide definition, in other words define when, at what stage of the pregnancy, Americans consider an abortion to be the termination of an innocent life.

Regretfully, in large measure due to the Senate filibuster, very little gets done in the Congress, and that has particularly been the case for nearly the last 30 years. The excess use of the filibuster explains why presidential executive orders and court rulings have become so dominate, and ultimately so destructive to the democratic process.

When I asked a former House colleague, then newly elected, how he liked the Senate, he said, “I love it. I can kill anything.” His response said everything to me. It explained and summarized the dysfunction in our federal government.

Just one senator can object to a bill coming to the Senate floor, so the bill cannot be considered for passage. It cannot even be debated. And sadly, most senators, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, argue to keep the filibuster in place, or are conveniently silent, because they too want that same power to kill legislation they don’t want.

Since it only takes one senator to kill a piece of legislation, it is not a surprise very little gets done in Congress, regardless of which party has the majority. In fact, given the Senate filibuster, it is a stretch to say one party controls the Senate. It doesn’t.

The majority party may get to choose who chairs the Senate Committees, decide the agenda of the committees, and pass legislation out of the committees, but that’s it! With few exceptions, if only one member of the Senate does not like the committee’s work, it is dead on arrival. It is dead unless 60 votes can be found to bring it to the floor for debate, and ultimate passage. But when does that happen?

When our Founding Fathers ratified the U.S. Constitution, they put many restraints on the federal government. Congress writes the laws, but any law has to have identical language in the House and Senate. The president may veto any potential law. The Congress then needs two-thirds majority to override a veto. And finally, the Court makes sure laws meet Constitutional requirements. The Court can void the law, declaring it unconstitutional

To further buffer the ability of a new wave of an ardent elected majority to work its will, two-thirds of the Senate is not even up for re-election. So why the need for the Senate filibuster? There are already enough restraints.

In the past, the filibuster was rarely used, but that was when most members of the House and Senate were loyal to the nation first, and their party second. Now the Democratic or Republican Party comes first, the nation second. This translates into members of both parties making sure the other party does not succeed, even when the minority members know passage of a piece of legislation proposed by the majority would be a positive step forward. Today, devotion to the party supersedes love and devotion to our country.

Use of the filibuster has become alarmingly abusive, a practice that is depriving Americans of a functioning government, and allowing senators to avoid debating and voting on controversial but essential legislation. Members of the House and the Senate can take a position earning a particular interest group’s support, but never pay the consequences for nothing getting done.

Ardent pro-life advocates argue for the need to prevent even birth control, and argue that a woman, even a young girl, a child, raped by a stranger, neighbor, or family member, must carry the pregnancy to term. Really?

How many Americans agree with that? We will soon find out. For now we have a real-life story that gives the abortion debate the reality it deserves.

How many Americans feel a 10-year-old raped child should be prevented from ending her pregnancy? How many Americans would condemn a child for traveling to Indiana from Ohio, given Ohio does not allow her to end her pregnancy after only six weeks? And how many Americans would criticize the doctor who performed the abortion? I suspect very few.

When the right to end a pregnancy was more theoretical than actual, advocates on both sides could make their arguments without the general public being fully engaged in the conversation, and understand and appreciate the consequences. The Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade assuredly guarantees that will change.

But as long as the filibuster is in place, the so-called best and most important forum for political debate, the U.S. Senate, may never even debate the issue. Senators with opposing views will make statements to the press, be prominent on social media, and speak on the Senate floor, but will never be held responsible and accountable for debating the issue, and finding a legislative solution most Americans can accept. That must change.

I believe the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v Wade has a silver lining. The use of the Senate filibuster, an historical southern strategy to prevent northern interference, may finally be limited — or actually eliminated — given public pressure to address a woman’s right to end a pregnancy, especially in cases of rape or incest. And maybe as a result, Congress will be able, and actually become motivated, to address other neglected issues confronting our country.

Christopher Shays served 34 years in public office, 13 years as a state representative from Stamford and 21 years as congressman for the Fourth District of Connecticut.