Sen. Jeff Merkley: ‘This isn’t a question of filibuster or no filibuster’

Senate Democrats are moving toward some version of filibuster reform. And one of the primary agitators behind that project has been Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.). It’s his reform proposal — a modest document that doesn’t end the filibuster so much as bring it closer into alignment with what the public already thinks it is — that many observers think the Democrats will be working off of when they reconvene in early January. We spoke about the issue last week, and an edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: You’re one of the only senators I’ve seen who’s stepped forward and said, “This is one potential route we could take to reform the filibuster.” But there’s also been some opposition. Chris Dodd devoted his farewell speech to saying that filibuster reform is “unwise.” He’s obviously been around the Senate for a long time, so what was your take on that?

Jeff Merkley: I did not hear the first half of the speech. I apparently walked in just as he was completing that portion, so I didn’t directly react to it. But I think it’s important for people to understand that this isn’t a question of filibuster or no filibuster, it’s about the ability of the minority and the majority to participate in a deliberative process. The filibuster was designed to make sure every member gets to participate and that the minority has a significant role. It wasn’t designed to obstruct the deliberative process, and there’s nothing about the way that the Senate is operating right now that is consistent with the way the Senate has operated historically.

I always make reference to when I was an intern in ’76, and I was working on the Hill in the ’80s, the Senate functioned. It doesn’t really function now. We didn’t pass a budget, we didn’t pass any of our appropriations bills. We didn’t get to a host of House legislation, we didn’t get to a whole lot of nominations to the executive branch and the judicial branch. This is not an acceptable state of affairs.

So if the social contract is broken, the contract that said “I understand that only under the most pressing, important circumstances will I utilize my privilege to delay the Senate and demand a supermajority vote,” if that social contract is gone and it’s a routine thing because one wants to paralyze the Senate and keep it from operating, then we need to adjust the rules. That doesn’t mean we get rid of the filibuster, but it does mean that we should make anyone who wishes to exercise that have to put more energy into it than simply filing an objection and walking away and having dinner while you delay the Senate for a week.