A New Chance for the Senate

A New Chance for the Senate


By:  The New York Times Editorial Board

 In May, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, was furious at yet another obstructionist filibuster by Senate Republicans. He admitted then that he was wrong in 2011 not to change the Senate’s rules when he had a chance.

“These two young, fine senators said it was time to change the rules of the Senate, and we didn’t,” he said, referring to Tom Udall of New Mexico and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who came up with a plan to reduce filibuster abuse that he rejected. “They were right. The rest of us were wrong, or most of us, anyway. What a shame.”

It was a shame, a missed opportunity that helped give Republicans a big cudgel over the last two years. But now Mr. Reid has a chance to rectify that mistake. In January, at the beginning of the next session of the United States Senate, Democrats can vastly improve the efficiency of Congress and reduce filibuster abuse with a simple-majority vote. This time they need to seize the moment.

The filibuster’s importance is as a last-ditch ploy to prevent a minority party from being steamrolled on the most pressing national issues. It was never intended to routinely require a 60-vote supermajority on virtually every issue the Senate takes up. Yet that’s how Republicans have used it in the last six years, to a far greater extent than Democrats ever did when they were in the minority.

The proposal made by Mr. Udall and Mr. Merkley last year, which we strongly supported, would have preserved the filibuster but made it much harder to use. Rather than allow a single senator to raise an objection that triggered a 60-vote requirement, their plan would require 10 signatures to start a filibuster and would then force an increasingly large group of members to speak continuously on the floor to keep it going. Senators could not hide in cloakrooms but would have to face the public on camera to hold up a judge’s confirmation, a budget resolution or a bill.

Some old-guard Democrats wouldn’t go along, fearing what might happen if Republicans gained the majority. But the gridlock just got worse. Republicans used a supermajority requirement to stymie a military spending bill; blocked the Dream Act, giving legal status to young immigrants in college or the military; and stopped a bill requiring disclosure of secret political contributions. Filibusters also held up scores of worthy executive and judicial nominations, leading us to conclude that they should not be allowed on confirmations.

Mr. Reid has already expressed an interest in ending filibusters on “motions to proceed,” a parliamentary tactic routinely used by Republicans to prevent debate on bills. That would reduce time-wasting in the Senate but would still allow supermajority barriers on the actual passage of bills. But he needs to go further, supporting the Udall-Merkley proposal to end “lazy filibusters” and to eliminate the filibuster on establishing House-Senate conferences, which has made negotiations increasingly rare.

Every new crop of senators brings the potential for moving away from hoary rules and traditions that have virtually crippled American lawmaking. Next year, 12 new senators will join the chamber, only three of whom are Republicans. Many of the others are younger, more liberal and more feisty than the ones they replaced, and several have already expressed support for ending legislative abuse. They should make sure that Harry Reid knows how they feel, so he doesn’t suffer another pang of regret.