It’s past time to overhaul the filibuster rule

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should not back down on reforming the filibuster rule, one of the primary culprits in recent Congressional gridlock.

When the term “filibuster” is mentioned, many Americans think of good guy Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” talking continuously day and night on the Senate floor until he’s weary, exhausted and nearly collapsing, to block evil legislation by special interests.

The modern-day real-life incarnation involves no such dramatics. Senators only have to state they are filibustering under an informal agreement between the political parties.

That lazy simplification of a historic tradition in the U.S. Senate – there is no mention of a filibuster in the Constitution and it doesn’t exist in the House – has led to abuse of the rule, contributing to the lowest-ever approval rating for this do-nothing Congress.

How have Republicans abused the filibuster? For comparison, it was never used before 1841, and senators used the filibuster about once a year from 1917 to 1969.

But since 2007, Republicans have filibustered nearly 400 times. They doubled the number of filibusters in the past five years over the previous period, and they used it 112 times in 2012.

Most of those times, only one senator invoked the filibuster, bringing the entire body to a sudden stop.

In order to end a filibuster, a supermajority of senators – 60 of the 100-member chamber – must vote to do so.

Reid said he would use a Senate procedure to change the filibuster rule. Senators can change their rules by a simple majority vote on the first day of a session. The 2013 session is scheduled to begin Jan. 21.

Two senators have proposed a sensible rule change that Reid should put to a first-day vote. A reform plan crafted by senators Tom Udall of New Mexico and Jeff Merkley of Oregon would require at least 10 senators to file a filibuster petition and at least one member to speak continuously on the Senate floor, a la Jimmy Stewart.

Because Republicans have abused filibusters simply to prevent debate on a bill or presidential nomination, not just to block a vote as was the norm, the Merkley-Udall proposal goes further. It would restrict filibusters to actual votes.

Any filibuster rule change has rankled Republicans, who say it would destroy bipartisan cooperation in the Senate (an oxymoron, to be sure), and also some Democrats, who fear losing majority status in the 2014 elections and may want to use the filibuster themselves.

Both sides are wrong. The filibuster rule shouldn’t exist or be reformed to benefit either political party. It should be reformed on Jan. 21 to help fix a broken Congress and benefit the American people. While this single reform won’t end the gridlock (that will take more that procedural reforms) it is step in the right direction.

Reid should push forward with filibuster reform, and at least 51 senators should vote for it. Let’s hope that no single senator invokes a filibuster prior to the vote. That would be a cruel irony to the American people.