Fil­i­buster re­form could fix our dys­func­tional Se­nate

The fil­i­buster is not in the Con­sti­tu­tion or orig­i­nal se­nate rules.

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - From the left Mon­day Tues­day Wed­nes­day Thurs­day Le­high writes for the Bos­ton Globe; le­ Fri­day Satur­day Sun­day


of your empty threats. Last week, Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell warned that if Democrats over­hauled the fil­i­buster, Se­nate Repub­li­cans would be less in­clined to work in bi­par­ti­san fash­ion.

Is that even pos­si­ble? McCon­nell, af­ter all, is the hy­per-par­ti­san tac­ti­cian who, in pur­suit of his de­clared goal of ren­der­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama a one-term pres­i­dent, el­e­vated leg­isla­tive de­lay and ob­struc­tion to a dark po­lit­i­cal art.

It ap­pears not to have oc­curred to the irony-im­paired Ken­tucky se­na­tor that if Repub­li­cans had been gen­uinely in­clined to­ward bi­par­ti­san­ship, there would be no need for fil­i­buster re­form. In­stead, the fix-the-fil­i­buster move­ment is gath­er­ing steam. Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid, who op­posed an over­haul in the last ses­sion, is a con­vert to the cause, and Obama threw his weight be­hind Reid’s ef­forts.

The in­creas­ing prospect that the Se­nate may re­form the de­lay­ing tac­tic that has ren­dered the Se­nate a par­a­lyzed polity has McCon­nell in a state of owly in­dig­na­tion. He’s ac­cused Reid of pre­par­ing to vi­o­late Se­nate rules be­cause Democrats may take ad­van­tage of a be­gin­ning-of-the-ses­sion op­por­tu­nity to change the rules by a sim­ple ma­jor­ity vote rather than the two-thirds tally that’s usu­ally re­quired.

The im­por­tant ques­tion, how­ever, is this: Will the pro­posed re­forms ren­der the Se­nate a more re­spon­sive, ra­tio­nal, and pro­duc­tive place? Here, mean­while, is the best test of fair­ness: Are those re­forms some­thing Democrats would feel com­fort­able with if they were in the mi­nor­ity?

Reid hasn’t spec­i­fied the full range of changes he will pro­pose, but Demo­cratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall, who are lead­ing the fil­i­buster-over­haul ef­fort, say sev­eral pro­pos­als have wide­spread back­ing among Democrats.

One would re­duce the sheer num­ber of fil­i­busters by elim­i­nat­ing the abil­ity to fil­i­buster mo­tions to bring mat­ters to the Se­nate floor for de­bate and mo­tions to send leg­is­la­tion to House-Se­nate con­fer­ence com­mit­tees.

Sen­a­tors would still be able to use the tac­tic once a mea­sure reached the floor or re­turned from con­fer­ence. But if a sec­ond re­form re­quir­ing a so-called talk­ing fil­i­buster passes, fil­i­bus­ter­ers would ac­tu­ally have to speak.

Cur­rently, a se­na­tor only needs to de­clare his or her in­tent to fil­i­buster to freeze a mat­ter un­til 60 sen­a­tors vote to move it for­ward. That “vir­tual” fil­i­buster lets sen­a­tors de­lay leg­is­la­tion or nominations with lit­tle ef­fort and few con­se­quences. But un­der the talk­ing­fil­i­buster re­form, “you don’t get to kill

Scot Le­high

Paul Krug­man

Dana Milbank

Mau­reen Dowd bills in the dark of night,” says Merkley. Rather, “you have to stand and make your case to the Amer­i­can peo­ple.” That would im­pose needed accountability be­cause “those of you on the out­side can make a judg­ment about whether that [fil­i­bus­ter­ing] per­son is a hero or a bum,” adds Udall.

As part of that re­form, when the fil­i­bus­ter­ers could no longer muster a speaker to take the floor, the fil­i­buster would end, at which point the busi­ness un­der con­sid­er­a­tion could be moved for­ward by a ma­jor­ity vote.

Those changes all make good sense, though they should be paired with guar­an­tees that the mi­nor­ity party can of­fer sub­stan­tive, non-dila­tory amend­ments. They hold the prospect of re­turn­ing the fil­i­buster to its one-time sta­tus as an avail­able, but in­fre­quently used, par­lia­men­tary tool.

Even that is more than was orig­i­nally in­tended. De­spite im­pres­sions to the con­trary, the fil­i­buster isn’t in­cluded in the Con­sti­tu­tion and wasn’t in the orig­i­nal Se­nate rules. In­stead, as po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists Thomas Mann and Norman Orn­stein write in their lat­est book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” the abil­ity to fil­i­buster slipped in ac­ci­den­tally, when a 19th cen­tury cleanup of Se­nate pro­ce­dures elim­i­nated the rule al­low­ing a sim­ple ma­jor­ity to bring an is­sue to a vote.

Once used only spar­ingly, to thwart leg­is­la­tion sen­a­tors ve­he­mently op­posed, the fil­i­buster has now be­come a rou­tine tac­tic. Democrats cer­tainly de­serve some re­spon­si­bil­ity for abus­ing it dur­ing Ge­orge W. Bush’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. Still, they look like pik­ers com­pared to the abuse un­der McCon­nell and his GOP troops dur­ing Obama’s pres­i­dency.

As Mann and Orn­stein write, the fil­i­buster has be­come a stealth weapon “which mi­nor­ity Repub­li­cans use not to high­light an im­por­tant na­tional is­sue, but to de­lay and ob­struct qui­etly on nearly all mat­ters, in­clud­ing rou­tine and widely sup­ported ones.”

And though it would prob­a­bly be lost on McCon­nell, here’s the irony of his op­po­si­tion to the fix-the-fil­i­buster ef­fort: By re­duc­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for par­ti­san ob­struc­tion, fil­i­buster re­form may ac­tu­ally en­cour­age the kind of bi­par­ti­san en­gage­ment the mi­nor­ity leader now pro­fesses to value.

Gail Collins

John Young

Leonard Pitts

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