Reid and Democrats settled for anemic filibuster reform

The defenders of the effortless filibuster that has evolved in the Senate act as if preserving it has some constitutional or democratic merit. It doesn’t.

The concept of a filibuster appears nowhere in the Constitution, which requires a supermajority vote in only a few specific instances. The clear inference is that in most matters, the Founders envisioned legislation being passed in both houses by a simple majority.

That would be in keeping with the principle that the majority rules — rather than what has evolved with the increasingly casual use of the filibuster. Now a strident minority rules.

Unfortunately, Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, folded again in negotiating the most watered down reform of the filibuster that could be imagined.

It’s not all Reid’s fault. When he began talking about changing the Senate rules to make a filibuster more inconvenient for the minority even some Democrats expressed misgivings. But it’s the job of a leader to lead. Reid had the ability to shepherd through changes in the filibuster rule on a simple majority vote, but he failed.

It should be noted that no one was suggesting doing away with the filibuster. The most anyone was asking for was that the procedure return to its roots, which required someone who held a principled objection to legislation to stand on the Senate floor and express that opposition. It would have been a return to the talking filibuster over the phony filibuster in effect in recent years. Now all a senator has to do is announce his intention to filibuster, and if the other side can’t muster 60 votes for cloture, no vote on the legislation or the nomination before the Senate is ever taken.

Make them talk

We liked a proposal by Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, who suggested two years ago that once a filibuster started, five filibustering senators would have to be present during the first 24 hours, 10 during the next 24 hours and 20 after that. They would have to pursue meaningful debate, the kind of debate that informs the public about what is at stake if the legislation they so ardently opposed were to pass.

Instead, Reid of Nevada and the minority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, came up with a weak package of reforms that the Senate adopted by lopsided votes. One will allow bills to be more quickly brought up for debate. Another will limit discussion on certain White House nominations.

Reid and many other Democrats are obviously worried that some day they could be in the minority. They’re worried about protecting their possible future selves. That, of course assumes that if the tables were to turn in 2014 or 2016, the new Republican majority would be equally solicitous of the Democratic minority. Given the increasingly acrimonious partisan politics in Washington — which shows little sign of abating — we’re guessing that Reid and company are being naive.

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