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Editorial: Senate filibustering blocks majority rule

Everybody complains about the slow pace of change in Washington. Trouble is, even those lawmakers and presidents who want to get things done are stymied by a U.S. Senate rule that prevents progress on ideas big and small.

New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has been talking about the issue since she joined the Senate. The good news: Reform efforts by Shaheen and others that were hopelessly doomed in the past might actually have a shot in 2013.

At issue is the filibuster, the parliamentary maneuver that forces sponsors of all sorts of bills to gather 60 percent support, rather than a simple majority – 51 votes – to pass their legislation. This is not the way they explain the democratic process to schoolchildren, but it’s the way things work in Washington these days.

The popular image of a filibuster comes right out of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: A senator attempts to block a bill with endless debate, forcing his colleagues to find a supermajority to shut him up. But in real life, a single senator can stop everything without a single word uttered on the Senate floor but nonetheless requiring 60 votes.

In the past, filibusters were relatively rare. They were used to defend minority rights and ensure legislation got a full debate. Today, the minority party – whichever party happens to be the minority at the moment – uses the filibuster routinely to require 60 votes to get nearly anything done. In other words, the minority uses it to make the majority fail. How are voters to judge the majority party, when its progress is largely stymied by a filibustering minority?

Sure, the founders intended the Senate to be slow and deliberative – but surely not this slow. In fact, they specifically considered requiring a supermajority to pass legislation but rejected the idea.

There are half-step proposals to tame the filibuster. One idea would require that a senator actually stand on the Senate floor and talk if he or she intended to hold up legislation. Another would restrict filibusters to actual legislation, rather than to motions to end debate.

But better would be a change that simply did away with the maneuver that allowed the minority to routinely thwart the majority. In the past, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid opposed filibuster reform. After this month’s election, though, he was singing a different tune – and apologizing for his past position. And many newly elected senators, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Angus King of Maine, made the issue part of their campaigns.

Even the method for changing the rules about majority versus supermajority votes is bound up in controversy. Typically, changing the Senate rules takes 67 votes. Some senators, though, are advocating for a maneuver that would allow them to change the rules with just 51 votes at the start of the legislative session – 51 votes they don’t quite have yet.

Either way, such a change is worth pursuing. The change would benefit the party in power, of course, but it’s not crazy to think that some Republicans might get behind such a move this year. After all, in 2014, Democrats will have 20 seats up for re-election and Republicans will be defending just 13. The GOP could help end the filibuster and even end up as the first party to truly benefit from it.

Shaheen and several likeminded colleagues have signed onto a petition called “Fix the Filibuster.” Maybe a more powerful slogan would be “Restore majority rule.”

Whose constituents would possibly disagree?

Legacy Comments2

Filibuster? Try looking into Senator Reid's abuse of cloture: Traditionally the number of cloture motions has been the guide as to how many filibusters there were. The thing is that cloture's are now being used as a tool to stop debate altogether. The numbers show that during the 111th Congress and the 112 Congress, both under Democratic control, cloture motions have gone to the roof to all-time highs. During the 111th Congress 189 time’s cloture motions were filed, 186 were filed by the same Senator, Harry Reid. The other three were filed by three different Senators. Here is now where things will get interesting. Of the 189 cloture motions filed by Harry Reid, 186 were filed on the same day, actually within minutes of, the Bill being presented to the floor. When a Bill is presented to the Senate, it has to go through to readings before debate can begin. Invoking cloture at the same time the Bill is presented to the Senate floor in essence locks out any possibility of debate over the bill and forces the vote to be on the Bill as it is. There's no opportunity to discuss amending or changing for the better any Bill once cloture is invoked.

51% rule???? Change it everywhere...even on ballot questions like the NH income tax question. Majority rule anyone???

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