The power of a minority to stop the U.S. Senate in its tracks, even when it’s only a minority of one, is what makes the body what it is. And lately, that’s the problem.
Throughout history, that power made the Senate the place where compromises were forged and minority views were used to create a national consensus.
But now it makes the Senate the engine of dysfunction, where good ideas, solid appointments and important work wait while process takes center stage.
Senators elected by a majority of voters to carry out specific policy promises can’t deliver because senators elected by a minority can block them, in the belief that doing nothing is better than doing something they disagree with. Is it any wonder that Congress has an 18 percent approval rating in an average of recent polls?
As retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe said in her farewell speech, it hasn’t always been this way and it doesn’t have to be like this now. It’s time for the Senate to reform its rules, and we urge Republican Sen. Susan Collins and independent Sen.-elect Angus King to join with the group of Democrats who are serious about fixing the filibuster and making the Senate work again.
The problem is not in the Consitution or even in a law. It’s the Senate rules, which can and should be fixed in January when the new Senate convenes.
Not like Mr. Smith
The Senate filibuster was enshrined in the public imagination by Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” In that film, a high-minded objection to a corrupt land deal takes the form of an around-the-clock speech in which the hero delays a vote with a treatise on the meaning of democracy.
Just as he is collapsing with exhaustion, his opponents see the wickedness of their position and join his side.
Under the rules today, Sen. Smith would only have had to raise his hand and say he objected to ending debate. If the other side couldn’t come up with 60 votes to invoke cloture, the vote on the issue wouldn’t be held and Mr. Smith could go about his business.
And filibusters don’t just get in the way of a bill’s final passage. A minority can stop a vote to bring a bill up for debate or they can stop a vote on an amendment, and each filibuster can eat up a week of the Senate’s time. And it requires no effort by the minority beside having one member ready to raise his hand.
This power has long been available in the Senate, but it hasn’t always been used as it is today. According to research by Sen. Jeff Merkel, D-Ore., Lyndon Johnson called for only one cloture vote in his six years as Senate majority leader in the 1950s. In his six years in the same job, Majority Leader Harry Reid has called for a cloture vote nearly 400 times. It’s important to remember that none of these votes had anything to do with the issue at hand: All were just about the mechanics about when a vote should be taken.
If respect for the minority is what makes the Senate great, the tyranny of the minority makes the whole body seem very small.
Merkel’s proposal would bring balance back in the right direction.
New rule needed
He calls for a new rule requiring a “talking filibuster.” A minority could still block a bill from going to a vote, but it would have to keep a senator talking on the floor and maintain 41 senators in the chamber ready to vote to extend debate, instead of forcing the majority to come up with 60 votes to end it. That ups the ante on the filibusterers, which should be enough make the maneuver less common. And by making a senator state his case in the chamber (and on CSPAN) it would show the public what’s going on and could get people to pressure their senator to change position.
Democrats have been the victims of the recent filibuster overuse, but they are not universally supportive of this kind of reform. Some of them have been around long enough to remember when they were in the minority, and understand that they could soon be there again. They don’t want to give up any of the tools they could use to influence legislation.
But obstructionism is wrong, regardless of which party uses it. It’s time to fix the filibuster in a way that gives the minority a strong voice without letting it block all progress. If some Democrats don’t want to make this reform, it is important that a moderate Republican like Collins and an independent like King throw their support to it.
Some will argue that the filibuster prevents bad ideas from becoming law and the onus should be on senators to find a way to work together under the existing rules.
If the filibuster were forcing compromise and empowering moderates, we would understand sticking with it. But since all it does is harden party differences and block meaningful progress, all senators should be willing to try to find a better way.