THE SAGA of campaign finance reform raises a question that has been dormant for too long: Why does the Senate permit filibusters? Why should a reform that twice has passed through the House, that is lauded by the president and that enjoys the support of a majority of senators flounder because a Senate minority threatens the talkathon treatment? Twice before, in 1917 and 1975, the Senate has proven itself capable of reining in the filibuster, and recently it demonstrated some appetite for self-correction by changing the egregious "hold," another maneuver by which senators block the will of the majority. It is time for the Senate to look at the filibuster again and curtail it.
The filibuster's fans see it as a necessary foil against the tyranny of the majority. Foil is right; necessary is not so obvious. America's system offers citizens a chance to block legislation by winning over the executive, by pleading before the courts or by lobbying the Senate or House -- at the committee stage, before a floor vote and finally in conference. The demise of the filibuster cannot credibly be said to deprive minorities of the chance to make their arguments.
It is credible, however, to suggest that the American system suffers increasingly from gridlock. There are reasons for this -- voters choose not to entrust the executive and the legislature to the same party, and many conservatives regard governmental inaction as virtuous -- but the filibuster is clearly one of the culprits behind the logjam in Washington. Over the past generation or so, the Senate has shed the clubby bonds that once restricted filibusters to momentous issues such as civil rights, and those bonds have been replaced by aggressive individualism. Senators these days sometimes seem less interested in striking legislative deals than in being seen as the prime movers behind flashy bills or, failing that, as the prime obstructors. In this culture, the filibuster is an almost irresistible tool, wielded routinely by senators seeking concessions for some pet cause or simply seeking attention.
In 1975 when this new individualism already was evident, the Senate empowered 60 senators to break a filibuster by voting for "cloture"; previously cloture had required 67 backers. Since that reform, however, the Senate's individualism has grown more profound yet without any compensating reform. In 1995 Sens. Tom Harkin and Joseph Lieberman proposed a sensible idea: The first cloture vote on any bill would require 60 votes, but the second would need 57 and the third only 54. Unfortunately, this proposal attracted a mere 19 supporters.
Everybody loves the filibuster sometimes: We do too when it serves an issue in which we believe. Until the system is reformed, liberals and conservatives alike will use it. Nonetheless, all sides should see that reform is needed to prevent routine filibusters from deepening gridlock and to forestall the public disillusionment with government that gridlock engenders. If the Harkin-Lieberman idea lacks support, other restraint should be devised. The Senate, for example, might force those who threaten a filibuster to turn their talk into action -- which might involve standing and talking on the Senate floor for hours without a break. The prospect of that ordeal might have a salutary effect on the Senate's gridlock merchants.