Merkley wants to change Senate

WASHINGTON — To an outsider, the machinations of the U.S. Senate can appear incomprehensible and largely pointless. That’s also true for some of those on the inside, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., although he’s much more diplomatic in his criticism.

Merkley is one of several junior Democratic senators urging Senate leaders to overhaul the arcane rules and procedures of the chamber. And to make that happen, Merkley circulated a menu of potential Senate reforms in a memo last week, with proposals for everything from speeding up how the chamber does business to re arranging the seating charts in committee hearings.

“It’s been extremely positive, from people who have shared their responses,” Merkley said, laughing, in an interview last week. “Not everybody’s shared their responses.”

Right now, Merkley argues, it’s far too easy to prevent anything of consequence from being accomplished in the Senate. His memo cites the fact that 125 executive branch nominees and 48 judicial nominees have yet to receive a vote .

Merkley said he’s not wedded to any of the individual ideas he presented. Rather, he wanted to further the debate over Senate reform by laying out several options. A fundamental idea, though, is to keep the notion that everyone should have the chance to air their views, while requiring more work from the minority party — whichever party is the minority party — when its members want to gum up Senate business .

One way to do that is requiring filibusters to look more like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where opposition members would have to continue to speak on the Senate floor to prevent a final vote. That kind of filibuster essentially doesn’t happen today because of the current structure of Senate rules, according to several congressional scholars.

“There’s many, many different ways to do it, but the underlying things are shift responsibility to those who wish to keep debate open,” Merkley said. “Have them have a presence that is visible to the public so there’s transparency and accountability to the public.”