Reform and the Filibuster

The new Senate will face one of its most momentous decisions in its opening hours on Wednesday: a vote on whether to change its rules to prohibit the widespread abuse of the filibuster. Americans are fed up with Washington gridlock. The Senate should seize the opportunity.

A filibuster — the catchall term for delaying or blocking a majority vote on a bill by lengthy debate or other procedures — remains a valuable tool for ensuring that a minority of senators cannot be steamrollered into silence. No one is talking about ending the practice.

Every returning Democratic senator, though, has signed a letter demanding an end to the almost automatic way the filibuster has been used in recent years. By simply raising an anonymous objection, senators can trigger a 60-vote supermajority for virtually every piece of legislation. The time has come to make senators work for their filibusters, and justify them to the public.

Critics will say that it is self-serving for Democrats to propose these reforms now, when they face a larger and more restive Republican minority. The facts of the growing procedural abuse are clearly on their side. In the last two Congressional terms, Republicans have brought 275 filibusters that Democrats have been forced to try to break. That is by far the highest number in Congressional history, and more than twice the amount in the previous two terms.

These filibusters are the reason there was no budget passed this year, and why as many as 125 nominees to executive branch positions and 48 judicial nominations were never brought to a vote. They have produced public policy that we strongly opposed, most recently preserving the tax cuts for the rich, but even bipartisan measures like the food safety bill are routinely filibustered and delayed.

The key is to find a way to ensure that any minority party — and the Democrats could find themselves there again — has leverage in the Senate without grinding every bill to an automatic halt. The most thoughtful proposal to do so was developed by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, along with Tom Udall of New Mexico and a few other freshmen. It would make these major changes:

At least 10 senators would have to file a filibuster petition, and members would have to speak continuously on the floor to keep the filibuster going. To ensure the seriousness of the attempt, the requirements would grow each day: five senators would have to hold the floor for the first day, 10 the second day, etc. Those conducting the filibuster would thus have to make their case on camera. (A cloture vote of 60 senators would still be required to break the blockade.)

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