While assembling gifts, reassemble Senate rules

This year, along with all the carols, gift returning and ceremonial watchings of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jeff Merkley has a whole new idea for a seasonal activity.

“We need to say to the American people, over the holidays,” he proposes, “please engage in a debate if you think the Senate if broken.”

Well, it’s better than finding a filibuster under the tree.

Oregon’s freshman Democratic senator has noticed, during his first two years, that the Senate has moved from being the world’s greatest deliberative body to a place carefully structured to avoid deliberating — or doing much of anything else. Although it would greatly surprise the people who designed the institution — such as Thomas Jefferson, who as vice president wrote the first Senate rules — it now takes a supermajority of three-fifths for the Senate to do anything, or even talk about doing anything.

Sixty votes are now required to break a filibuster so the Senate can take a vote or even begin debate on a bill. Merkley says the situation was summed up when, before a food safety bill passed with an overwhelming 73 votes — even in the Senate, there’s not that much pro E. coli sentiment — supporters had to break three filibusters, one on taking up the bill, one on amendments, one on taking a vote.

Filibusters were once considered a rare, extreme tactic; now the Senate needs to break a filibuster to do just about anything. As a result, Merkley notes, hundreds of bills passed by the House in this Congress were never considered by the Senate at all, 100 presidential nominations wait untouched, and not a single departmental appropriation has been passed.

Why does Merkley want to bring the subject of the Senate, as unchanging and uninviting as a fruitcake, into the midst of the holiday season — aside from its redefinition as naughty rather than nice?

It’s because Senate rules are adopted on the first day of the new Congress, in this case, Jan. 5. (The senators arrive the day before the Magi, to avoid any confusion with wise men.) So any momentum for change has to build while people would rather be deciding how much rum to put in the egg nog.

“Just creating a Senate debate on this,” says Merkley, “would be a big step forward.”

Merkley has been making his list for a long time. A year ago, he starting talking to other freshmen, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Begich of Alaska, about the issue. He thinks it took freshmen to notice there was anything strange about the situation.

“The Senate consists of the old bulls, the mid-career people and the newbies,” he observed. “People have been here for entire careers without talking about the rules or how you can change them.”

Merkley isn’t entirely sure just how the rules can be changed, to reduce the dominance of filibusters and also expand senators’ rights to get the Senate to vote on amendments. He talks about the details of requiring a “talking filibuster,” which sounds like a redundancy but would actually be a new development. Right now, nobody has to talk in a filibuster; without 60 votes, measures aren’t even brought up.

On the same principle, Merkley argues that if 41 senators want to prevent a vote, they should have to remain on the Senate floor to maintain the debate. Wednesday, that idea, and the importance of reform, was supported by a letter signed by every returning Democratic senator.

“The American people believe the right to extended debate means you stand up and you talk at a personal sacrifice. That’s the Jimmy Stewart model,” he argues. (References to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” are mandatory in any filibuster discussion.) “That’s what we’re trying to restore, so the American people can tell you if you’re a hero or a bum.”