The excessive use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate has resulted in partisan gridlock that has stymied the basic business of government. Now, as the new Senate returns to work Monday, it has a chance to fix at least one of Washington's problems. A modest reform proposed by a group of Democrats should appeal to both parties as it addresses filibuster abuses while maintaining influence for the minority party. Senators shouldn't let this opportunity pass.
As famously demonstrated by actor Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the filibuster is an extended debate to stall a vote. But unlike in the movie classic, today's filibuster does not require a senator to actually talk for hours on end on the Senate floor. Just the threat of a filibuster by one member is enough to bring legislation and political appointments to a screeching halt — until a 60-vote supermajority can be rounded up for "cloture," which cuts off debate.
The opportunity to change those rules is limited in the Senate. Only at the start of every new Congress can new rules be adopted by a simple majority; after that, 67 votes are required.
Filibusters used to be rare. But as the Senate has become more bitterly partisan, the use of the procedure has spiked, with both parties abusing the privilege.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McCon- nell, R-Ky., has made the filibuster a political weapon. An unprecedented 275 filibusters were initiated by Republicans over the last two congressional terms, preventing votes on such essentials as this year's budget and keeping nearly 175 judicial and executive branch appointments from being brought to a full vote. U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts recently complained that the Senate's inaction on nominees is handicapping the federal courts.
Any reform should respect the Senate's role as a deliberative body where majority passions are tempered. Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Jeff Merkley of Oregon have offered a series of reforms that would change the rules just enough to address the worst abuses. Their recommendations would turn the silent filibuster into the talking filibuster. Members would have to do the heavy lifting of speaking continuously on the Senate floor. This would publicly air the objectors' identities and concerns, bringing far more transparency than currently exists.
One of McConnell's tactics has been to filibuster all aspects of the Senate's business, including motions to proceed to consider a bill. The reform would grant two hours of debate, but then restrict filibusters to final passage votes only. Added reforms would eliminate secret holds by individual senators and guarantee consideration of a set number of amendments for both parties — giving minority senators more formal input into legislation.
Democrats know that whatever they do will affect their power if and when Republicans retake the Senate. But paring back the filibuster in some fashion is essential. The country needs a functioning Senate as opposed to the one it has.