Filibusters have traditionally been used as a ploy to slow down the rush toward a specific bill or nominee. The public may imagine them as a lone senator holding the floor of the Senate by talking in a marathon session. So long as he continues talking — usually pleading his case for an alternative path — this senator can bring the body to a halt. In 1957, Strom Thurmond spoke for more than 24 hours in an effort to halt a voting rights bill.
Today’s filibusters are played differently. A senator has only to say he or she intends to filibuster, and a bill or nominee’s momentum grinds to a halt until 60 votes are found to override the threat. Behind this flimsy premise sits miles and miles of legislative roadkill. A modern democracy facing problems and challenges in need of urgent attention can and must do better.
Yet, filibuster reform that would make senators do more than threaten to talk has been slow to develop. Two major concerns have kept the unproductive status quo.
The first is purely partisan. The political party with a majority in the Senate always has an eye on a time in the future when it will no longer hold the majority. While fixing the filibuster rules may help in the short run, the thinking goes, those same rules will very likely be used against us when we are in the minority.
The second worry is that this reform might lead to even more gridlock. If senators have to employ their voices to filibuster, that might just be what they do. The Senate’s business could bog down into an endless procession of senators willing to talk to death anything that they oppose.
On both counts, we say don’t worry. The partisan concerns are not without consequence, yet they are a prime example of the temptation for Republicans and Democrats to place their party loyalty over the good of the nation. The gridlock question undoubtedly leaves most Americans wondering: How could it get any worse? In a body where the Constitution requires a simple majority vote, the Senate has made 60 votes the new standard.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has an opportunity today to fix the Senate. A vote of 51 or more senators can amend the rules so a filibuster means more than a threat of talking. The power of debate is at the heart of a healthy democracy. Senators should be willing to voice their opposition, to make their case to their colleagues and the American people. The secretive process currently employed is the opposite of open democracy.