Calling the Previous Question
Last week I published a piece in Forbes about my concerns about the progress of this year’s legislative session. I wrote about the high expectations taxpayers had and the mandate they sent for legislative reform—including labor reform, tax reform, ethics reform, education reform, and many others. Some legislators, particularly in the Senate, have explained the legislative lethargy we’ve seen as the result of Senate tradition, where filibusters are generally allowed to go on for as long as the filibusterer chooses. But within that tradition, of course, is a way to sidestep the filibuster: calling the previous question.
A previous question motion, or “PQ,” allows for a vote on a bill or amendment if a majority of the chamber chooses, even if a filibuster is ongoing. The details of the motion are laid out in Rule 84 of the Rules of the Senate, which describes the PQ as follows:
The previous question shall be in this form: “Shall the main question be now put?”. It shall only be admitted on written demand of five senators, and sustained by a vote of a majority of the senators elected, and in effect shall be put without debate, and bring the senate to direct vote upon a motion to commit, if such motion shall have been made; and if this motion does not prevail, then upon amendments, and then upon the main question. On demand for the previous question, a call of the senate shall be in order, but after a majority of the senators elected have sustained such a motion, no call shall be in order prior to the decision on the main question.
Translation? Five senators can initiate the PQ, and a majority of Senators can end a filibuster. Why Senators would hesitate to call a PQ isn’t necessarily captured in the rules, of course, and as we’ve seen in previous sessions, spurned Senators can grind the chamber to a halt by opposing motions that require unanimous consent or filibustering other legislation. This eats up time for other legislative priorities, which is essentially the point and central to the threat.
But the PQ shouldn’t be considered in a vacuum or treated as if it were dictated by immutable laws of Senatorial physics. Whereas the filibuster and the PQ are well within the realm of Senate tradition, so too are rules changes that would head off the sort of obstruction that has dissuaded previous sessions from appropriately using the PQ motion; after all, if rule changes were not part of Senatorial tradition, then there wouldn’t be rules explicitly allowing for changing Senate rules. “Tradition,” as it turns out, is both a shield and a sword, and legislators obstructing reform need to realize the “tradition” argument cuts the other way as well.
The real question, then, isn’t whether the PQ and related rule changes are consistent with Senate tradition—they are—but whether Senate leadership has the courage to break the reform logjam. Time will tell, but time is running out.