Not Too Late to Curb the Filibuster

Not Too Late to Curb the Filibuster


By:  The New York Times Editorial Board

Fed up and rueful, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, made a startling admission on Thursday: he should have reined in the filibuster rule last year, when he had a chance. As Republicans engaged in yet another of their endless filibusters on what should have been a routine matter — reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank — Mr. Reid took to the floor and praised two senators for being right last year when he was wrong.

Tom Udall of New Mexico and Jeff Merkley of Oregon were prophetic in wanting to change Senate rules, he said. “The rest of us were wrong, or most of us, anyway,” he added. “What a shame.”

Since 2007, Democrats have been forced to try to break Republican filibusters 360 times — by far the highest rate in Congressional history. Ending them requires Democrats to get over a 60-vote hurdle. If Mr. Reid helped enact the proposal of the two senators, he would instantly make Congress more efficient and more democratic.

The plan would prevent the filibuster from being used abusively, without eliminating an important tool to give a minority party a voice. Among other changes, filibusters would require 10 senators to start, and members would have to speak continuously on the floor to keep it going. In current practice, a single senator can simply declare a filibuster against a measure. This rule change could have been enacted on a simple majority vote on the first day of the session. But Mr. Reid and other Democrats did not want to lose the ability to obstruct the Republican agenda if they lost control of the chamber.

On Monday, four Democratic congressmen, including John Lewis of Georgia, got so frustrated that they filed suit against the Senate, saying its filibuster rule is unconstitutional and illegally nullified their legislative votes. They argue that unlimited debate was never envisioned by the Constitution, and that supermajorities were required only in unusual cases, like overriding a veto or treaty ratification. They are joined by three students, the children of undocumented immigrants, who could have benefited from the citizenship path in the Dream Act until it was filibustered.

This suit, organized by Common Cause, makes some strong historical points, but it may not be necessary. Only recently have filibusters become a daily impediment to Senate operations, and they would not be that difficult to curb. We have supported eliminating the filibuster for judicial and executive nominees. Making other filibusters harder would be good for both parties. If Mr. Reid remains majority leader in January, he should lead the reform.