Editorial: Senate filibustering blocks majority rule

Last modified: 1/14/2013 11:36:18 AM
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?

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