Filibuster Reform Or Futility

Nobody should get their hopes up until Harry Reid has addressed the subject again, but those of us who think the lost opportunity for real, and necessarily unilateral (or if you insist, “nuclear”) filibuster reform was a major blunder for Senate Democrats should be cheered by this report from TPM’s Sahil Kapur:

In an interview on Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the author of a proposal to place more of the burden of sustaining a filibuster on the minority party, including forcing filibustering senators to speak on the floor, echoed remarks by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) earlier in the day about the need to revisit filibuster reform.

“Senate Republicans have demonstrated that they have absolutely no intention of ending their assault on the ability of the U.S. Senate to function,” Merkley told TPM, saying he had hoped the bipartisan agreement to preserve the 60-vote threshold but remove some obstacles to governing and ease gridlock. “Many of my colleagues are absolutely beside themselves with frustration, and that frustration is rapidly turning to fury.”

Senate Republicans have unleashed a string of filibusters since the bipartisan rules change deal, which did not change the 60-vote threshold, was enacted in January. They include the first-ever filibuster of a secretary of defense nominee (Chuck Hagel), a letter by 43 senators vowing to filibuster any nominee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the filibuster of a bill to avoid sequestration, and the filibuster of judicial nominee Caitlin Halligan. It was the Halligan filibuster Wednesday morning that set off Durbin and Merkley.

This news drifted across Washington even as Sen. Rand Paul was conducting an actual “talking filibuster” against the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director. Merkley (who made a “talking” requirement the centerpiece of his own reform initiative last year) chose to tout this not as another sign of GOP obstruction, but as a breath of fresh air:

“Rand Paul is saying ‘I have the courage of my conviction, I’m taking a stand and I want the people of America to know it.’ And that’s the way it absolutely should be if you’re working to block a nominee. You should be taking that responsibility,” Merkely said. “And I applaud him for doing that.”

I dunno about that. Maybe I’ve been swayed by Jonathan Bernstein’s argument that a “talking filibuster” requirement will just give right-wing Republicans a new way to sing their endless serenade to the almighty “conservative activist base” of their party. Or maybe being an old cracker it just reminds me too much of the dilatory tactics used against civil rights bills for so long, to the loud approbation of southern segregationists who treated the old goats controlling the Senate floor like the Confederate heroes of yore.

But the other thing we’ve learned since Reid’s version of “filibuster reform” took effect is that our friends in the MSM continue to struggle to call a filibuster and filibuster, and instead persist in talking about bills being “voted down” in the Senate because they don’t receive 60 votes. If it takes live demagoguery on the Senate floor to make it obvious what’s going on, making it’s worth the effort. But in any event, progressives should not shut up about filibuster reform until something significant is actually done about it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.