Merkley points the way on filibuster reform

MERKLEY POINTS THE WAY ON FILIBUSTER REFORM…. To a certain extent, it may seem as if the need for filibuster reform is less urgent now, given the results of the midterm elections. Whether the Democratic Senate majority is capable of holding up-or-down votes or not is almost irrelevant given the fact that the House will have arguably the most conservative majority in modern times.

But I’m hoping that this partisan landscape actually makes the prospect of reform even better — Republicans may be less likely to fight changes if they know the House is already under GOP control (and they hope to take back the Senate in 2012 anyway)

There are a variety of ideas that have been bandied about, but Kevin Drum takes a long look at a proposal touted by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who deserves a lot of credit not only for taking the issue on, but for some genuinely creative thinking on the subject.

Merkley’s proposal revolves around a single principle: the Senate should always allow debate. So the filibuster should be banned entirely on motions to proceed and on amendments because both are things the promote debate and engagement. Filibusters would still be allowed on a bill’s final vote, but it would take more than one senator to launch a filibuster (Merkley suggests a minimum of ten) and senators would have to actually hold the floor and talk. No longer would a single person be able to obstruct all business just by dropping a note to his party leader.

And in return? The minority party would have one of its major grievances addressed: the ability to offer amendments to legislation. Merkley proposes that unless a different agreement is reached prior to a bill coming to the floor, each side would be allowed to introduce five amendments of their own choosing. No longer could the majority leader “fill the amendment tree” or otherwise prohibit the minority party from trying to amend legislation. This fits with his broad principle that debate and engagement with legislation is a good thing. The minority party might choose to offer mischievous or blatantly political amendments, but that’s their choice. They also have the choice of genuinely trying to improve legislation and getting a majority of their colleagues to pass it. […]

[Merkley’s proposal] doesn’t eliminate the filibuster, it just eliminates filibuster abuse. And in return, the minority party gets an expanded ability to engage in a positive way with any legislation on the floor.

We’ll talk more about the process of considering procedural changes closer to the new year, but the plan would be to approve a proposal like this with a simple Senate majority, if the votes could be pulled together, and a little help from Vice President Biden.

One thing’s for certain: the need for reform couldn’t be any more obvious.

…Merkley understands the reality of the modern Republican Party: they don’t use the filibuster occasionally to obstruct legislation they feel especially strongly about, they use it “on nearly a daily basis, paralyzing the Senate.” What’s more, the filibuster isn’t just a way of requiring 60 votes to pass legislation. Rather, “the filibuster can be thought of as the power of a single senator to object to the regular order of Senate deliberations, thereby invoking a special order that requires a supermajority and a week delay for a vote.”

This is a key point to understand. The modern filibuster requires only one person to invoke it, doesn’t require that person to do anything other than announce his intent, and automatically eats up a week or more of time on the Senate calendar even on legislation that’s widely popular. Last year, for example, it took the Senate five weeks to approve an extension of unemployment benefits that eventually passed 98-0.

What’s become of the Senate has become one of the major impediments to sensible policymaking in the 21st century. This will no doubt sound overdramatized, but I genuinely believe improving the way the chamber does business is a necessity for national progress.