December 4, 2012

Perhaps it was inevitable that a parliamentary rule named after pirates would metastasize into an untamed menace.

Throughout its unlikely history, the filibuster has been – depending on the moment – lauded and scorned and even immortalized by Hollywood. A Senate relic, dry as parchment, has gained the sort of colorful reputation normally reserved for troubled starlets (or troubled generals).

Now, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposes, as others have in the past, to finally rein in the beast. It won’t be easy. Previous efforts to change the filibuster have failed in the face of opposition from whichever party is in the minority and fearful of losing their right to stand up to – and in the way of – majority will.

But this time might be different, because the 113th Congress will be different.

Ms. Warren — that’s newly elected Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — is coming to Washington. She and several of her incoming colleagues are fed up with filibuster abuse, and they will join a group of sitting senators committed to reform.

It’s about time. The filibuster, which allows the minority party to hold up Senate business by requiring a 60-vote threshold, has technically been around since departing Vice President/assassin Aaron Burr pleaded with his colleagues to clean up the rule books.

Over the years, there have been plenty of examples – from the unconscionable (a century-long refusal by Southern senators to pass any civil rights legislation) to the entertaining (New York Republican Al D’Amato’s 15-hour attempt, ending in song, to save a typewriter plant) – of senators holding the floor to make a point.

But more recently, the Senate’s Republican minority has used the filibuster to demand 60 votes, not just for some legislation, but for all of it. The group has threatened to filibuster 348 times in the six years since Democrats took the majority. In fact, 2009-2010 saw more filibusters than in the 1950s and 60s combined. The result is a non-functioning Senate, where critical legislation, from the Jobs Act to the Dream Act, and urgent judicial appointments, die in a tangled web of grossly misused procedure.

Even worse, filibustering senators no longer have to stay on the floor and talk. The public’s perception – Jimmy Stewart giving a 24-hour uninterrupted, impassioned defense of his views – is just Hollywood fantasy. One worthy exception was when Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) launched something like a real filibuster against the 2010 tax deal, delivering a stirring speech on behalf of working families.

To change all this, Reid wants to eliminate the 60-vote requirement to start debate on a bill and to require senators who filibuster to stay on the floor and speak. These commonsense reforms would, it is hoped, induce senators to conduct the people’s work. Why, after all, do we need more than a simple majority to just talk about a bill?

Moreover, the proposed changes could restore a level of honesty and transparency to Senate debate, allowing people to hear the very minority views the filibuster is supposed to protect. Reinstating what is called the talking filibuster might also help eliminate the backroom maneuvering that is the hallmark of congressional obstruction.

This could boost a body whose approval ratings last year were worse than Paris Hilton’s and BP’s during the oil spill. As Warren recently argued, the American people are tired of roadblocks and gridlock – they want solutions.

There is, of course, opposition. Reid intends to use a unique window of time on the first day of the new Congress to change the filibuster rules, using only 51 votes. While even some longtime Democrats are anxious about this method, Republicans have taken their act to a whole new level of melodrama. Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blustered that using this so-called “nuclear” option would herald the apocalypse, forcing him to bring Senate business to a halt — as though this would be a departure from his current course.

The feigned hysteria over mere reform is a good sign. It means that GOP obstructionists are genuinely concerned that they won’t be able to hold up the Senate’s most basic work without putting any skin in the game. They’re worried that they’ll have to, as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) helpfully put it, “park your fanny on the floor” and perhaps even explain their opposition.

No less a Founding Father than Alexander Hamilton warned against requiring a supermajority for basic action, predicting “tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.” Little did he know that he was presciently, perfectly describing the modern Senate.

Our system, by design, protects minority voices, but it doesn’t sanction stalemate.

Fortunately, when the curtain comes up on the new Congress, a group of senators will be ready to vote for change. Even President Obama has come out in support of Reid’s proposed, modest reforms, and the Fix the Senate Now coalition is mobilizing members of the public to urge their senators to do the same.

“The public business must in some way or other go forward,” Hamilton wrote 225 years ago. Come January, at long last, it might.