In Our View: Reform Filibuster Rules

Two quick and easy changes would break the gridlock in the Senate



Many changes will be required for Congress to overcome its current soul-crushing and will-sapping partisan divide. But even the longest journey begins with a single step, which is why the Senate should enact two quick and easy reforms when the 113th Congress convenes in January.No, this has nothing to do with the so-called “fiscal cliff,” which is a crisis that for now is wholly owned by the House of Representatives. But it is a reminder that there are pressing issues in addition to the nation’s financial crisis.

Among them is the fact that there is gridlock in the Senate. Yes, the austere, august Senate, originally designed as a refuge of nobility and decorum, is no more noble than the sandbox fight that is the House.

During the past six years, Republicans used the parliamentary procedure known as a filibuster almost 400 times to waylay legislation. That is about twice as often as the procedure was used during the previous six years, and it included the filibustering of simple procedural motions. All of this suggests the Republicans have been more interested in obstructionism than productivity, and we would hope for a little less paralysis and a lot more action from the next Senate.

To be sure, the filibuster is a necessary and often-productive method for preventing tyranny of the majority. The party that is not in power must have some means to prevent being bulldozed by an overzealous ruling party that wishes to limit debate. But the modern filibuster isn’t the filibuster they taught about in your grandfather’s high school Civics class.

The traditional filibuster evokes images of a courageous legislator righteously standing up for his or her beliefs, speaking for hours on the Senate floor and resorting to reading the phone book if necessary to prevent a bill from coming to a vote. Yet the modern filibuster consists of little more than a notification that a filibuster is in effect — and that notification can be delivered anonymously. The filibuster then prevents a vote and effectively kills legislation unless a cloture vote can be passed to end the “debate.” This essentially means that 60 votes are required to pass any legislation out of the Senate, providing the minority party with more power than voters have willed to them.

That brings us to our proposals:

• Restore the rule requiring actual floor debate to sustain a filibuster.
Not only would this force senators to act on their convictions rather than their partisan predilections, but in a world of 24/7 media coverage it would allow voters to see exactly who is holding up legislation and to consider why they are doing so. If a senator wishes to read recipes in order to prevent a vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act, so be it. But let the country watch.

• Prohibit anonymous filibusters.
If a senator wishes to prevent a vote on the Dream Act, fine. But he or she should own it, for the whole world to see.

The trick is that any procedural changes governing Senate business can be passed by a simple majority — if the change is made on the first day of a new session. The 113th Congress will convene on Jan. 3, 2013, and we urge the new Senate to show that it is interested in a new way of doing business — one that actually welcomes debate and accountability rather than allowing legislators to silently and anonymously block the people’s business.

We should expect nothing less from those we send to Washington.