Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley says it’s time for the U.S. Senate to overhaul the filibuster, the legislative maneuver through which a single senator can paralyze the Senate.
Merkley told The Oregonian last week that the Senate tradition needs to be reformed because it’s become too easy for a senator to bring business to a standstill by resorting to the filibuster. Once invoked, the filibuster can only be stopped through a cloture vote, requiring 60 votes before business can proceed.
The solution proposed by Merkley and other senators harkens back to the Jimmy Stewart classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which Stewart’s Sen. Jefferson Smith embarks on a historic filibuster, talking on the Senate floor for 24 straight hours in hopes of exposing Senate corruption.
Oddly enough, actual U.S. senators hated the movie when it was released in 1939, but even though it continues to have a hold on our sense of how the Senate operates, it was inaccurate even then: A senator doesn’t need to be speaking on the floor to invoke a filibuster. As Merkley notes, senators have all sorts of tools at their disposal to delay or block bills, and they often can do so anonymously.
That’s why Merkley is among the senators backing a proposal to change the filibuster process. The heart of the proposal: If senators want to filibuster, they need to actually filibuster, which is to say, they need to be yakking away on the Senate floor.
We like the proposal because it could be fun, especially in these days of C-SPAN; if a senator decided, for example, to pass the hours by reading a bestselling book, why, that would be just as good as an audiobook.
But Merkley’s fooling himself if he thinks filibuster reform will make much of a difference in the Senate.
In part, one of the reasons we have the Senate is so it can kill bills; it should be hard to get legislation through the Senate. That’s why we don’t particularly fret that the current Senate has passed only about 2.8 percent of the bills introduced in that chamber, a record low.
And truthfully, it’s hard to imagine that procedural reforms would make much of a difference in today’s hyper-partisan environment.
The increasing use of the filibuster is a symptom of a deeper issue. Until voters finally get the message through to senators that we elect them in part for their ability to reach across the aisle, to form consensus around vital legislation, you won’t see much change in Congress – regardless of whether senators are reading aloud the family-friendly parts of “Fifty Shades of Grey” on the Senate floor.