A window of opportunity will open in January to reduce the partisan gridlock in Congress. That's when reforms can be made to the Senate's filibuster rules by a simple majority vote rather than the 67 votes normally required. The original concept of the filibuster has merit: giving the minority party an opportunity to slow legislation on matters of public importance for an extended debate. But the way the filibuster has been used and abused in recent years makes it unworkable in its current form. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., should not let this chance slip away, because rules reform is essential to moving the business of government along.
Americans are frustrated by Congress' dysfunction. The blame is often laid at today's polarizing partisanship, with the House of Representatives controlled by Republicans and the Senate controlled by Democrats. But a new report by the nonprofit Brennan Center suggests the filibuster is a big contributor to the paralysis.
The modern "lazy filibuster" is too attractive as a tool of obstruction by the minority party. Since 2006, there have been 385 cloture motions in the Senate, which require 60 votes and are the only way to end a filibuster. That is more cloture motions than the total number filed between 1917 and 1988. What was once used in special circumstances is now routine, subjecting nearly all Senate business to a 60-vote supermajority. The result has been to stymie vital legislation such as the Dream Act as well as dozens of executive and judicial nominations. There are now 32 "judicial emergencies" due to vacancies on the federal courts, according to the Office of U.S. Courts.
Last year, an effort at filibuster reform was rejected because of concerns that it would change the character of the Senate as the more deliberative and collegial chamber. Democratic leaders worried that when they are in the minority at some point in the future they would lose leverage. But those interests have to be overridden by the way the filibuster has crippled the Senate's ability to operate. There are now up to six opportunities for a filibuster on a measure, including one when legislation is being taken up and another after it has been approved on a motion to take it to a conference committee with the House. There should be only one chance for a filibuster on the final vote to approve a measure or nomination.
Filibusters should also be harder to invoke. Senate Democrats want to require that a filibuster require actual speaking on the Senate floor, reminiscent of the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Sen. Strom Thurmond's marathon 24-hour filibuster when he tried to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This change would force senators to take public responsibility for holding up legislation or hamstringing the ability of the president to fill executive branch posts or judicial vacancies.
The proposed changes are modest ones that would retain the ability of the minority party to negotiate concessions while freeing the Senate to conduct the essential business of the nation. They should be embraced by members of both political parties.