Who says we are a divided nation? A full 75 percent of Americans tell pollsters they agree when it comes to their opinion of Congress.
After the least productive Congress in history, where storm relief and noncontroversial judicial appointments never received a final vote, the new U.S. Senate has a chance to make things different. Next week, when the Senate comes back to continue its first day of business (a day kept going since Jan. 2 by a parliamentary maneuver of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid), it will have a chance to reform the filibuster, and turn the Senate back into a deliberative body instead of an obstructionist one.
The filibuster, which lets one senator take a principled stand to stop the Senate in its tracks, is a time-honored feature of American government, but it has changed dramatically over the years. The problem is that it’s too easy to use and it’s used too often. Instead of the last resort of an individual’s conscience, it is the default position, stopping debate before it starts.
Thanks to a rule change in the 1970s, a senator no longer has to stand up and control the floor to stop a bill. With a silent filibuster, a senator only has to indicate that he or she wants to delay, and if the other side can’t come up with 60 votes, the bill is as good as dead.
These rules have been in place for some time, but they have never been as abused as they have been in the past few years. There have been more filibusters in the past six years than there were in the 70-plus years from 1917 to 1988.
A proposal to change this has been offered up by three Democratic senators, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Tom Harkin of Iowa.
They would replace the current filibuster rule with one that limits the opportunities in the process where a filibuster would be in order. Currently, senators can filibuster a bill before it comes to the floor and on every amendment, in addition to filibustering a final vote. The proposal would require a senator who wants to filibuster to take the floor and talk to prevent the vote from taking place.
This would make a real difference, drawing attention to who is delaying a bill and why. A less attractive alternative plan is being proposed by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., would maintain a minority’s ability to derail progress.
The Senate should not miss this opportunity. We urge Maine’s senators to back the more ambitious filibuster reform.