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Replace the farcical filibuster with one that requires effort

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

There are any number of reasons why the 112th Congress will be remembered as one of the least productive in history. And both parties will share some of the blame for that, although each will argue that it was the other’s fault. That very tendency — to look for someone to blame rather than look for a solution — says a lot about the state of inertia in our nation’s capital.

And while there are those who will argue otherwise, we would suggest that one of the most productive things that Senate Democrats could do to get things moving in the 113th Congress is to change the Senate rules to restore the filibuster. Not the filibuster that we know today — a virtually painless shadow of the filibuster of yesteryear — but a real filibuster that would require a senator who wanted to block legislation he or she considered deleterious to stand on the Senate floor and inveigh against it for as long as voice and bladder would allow.

That was a filibuster that deserved to be honored with the 60 votes necessary to end debate. Today, all it takes is one senator to threaten a filibuster and virtually any piece of business before the Senate requires not a simple majority but a supermajority to pass.

Some Republicans say that if the Democrats change the filibuster rules for the 113th Congress to make a filibuster more difficult (and more meaningful) that they will use other tactics at their disposal to shut the Senate down. Perhaps they would, but at least then their intransigence would be transparent — and open to a response by America’s public.

And there are some Democrats who are reluctant to dilute the filibuster because they are mindful that majorities come and majorities go, and that they will someday be in the minority. Well, unless there is a sea change in the partisan rancor that has its grip on Washington, we’re going to suggest that if the Republicans had taken control of the Senate in the upcoming Congress — as they were once expected to do — they’d have changed the rules of the filibuster before any Democrat had a chance to utter “cloture.”

Initiatives blocked

The Republican minority has used the filibuster to block a jobs bill, a farm bill, a highway bill, the Disclosure Act, the Dream Act and dozens of other Democratic initiatives. They perfected the tactic, and anyone who thinks that they would have handed that weapon intact to minority Democrats so that they could hamstring a Republican majority would have to be dreaming.

Two years ago, Democrats flirted with the idea of filibuster reform. We liked a proposal by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, that would have required that once a filibuster had started, five filibustering senators would have to be present for the first 24 hours; 10 during the next 24 hours and 20 after that. Meanwhile, there would have to be an ongoing debate, the kind of debate that informs the public about what is at stake.

But Democratic leaders were too timid for that or for any meaningful filibuster reform.

They trusted that their Republican colleagues would show more respect for governance than politics. What they got was a party so wedded to filibustering that last month Minority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a bill that he was sure could not pass, and when it became obvious that it would pass, he filibustered his own bill.

There is an often mangled piece of folk wisdom: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

The Democrats have been fooled into preserving the phony filibuster long enough. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should make returning the filibuster to its historic roots his first order of business in the 113th Congress.