By Robert Schlesinger |
In today's Senate, getting anything done is nearly impossible. The paralysis, gridlock, and partisanship that have haunted the body for the last few years are hurting our nation. There are huge backlogs of nominations for both judicial and executive posts, stalled legislation to help create jobs, and never-ending bickering in the news.
Much of this can be blamed on the "silent filibuster." Currently, a single senator can block a simple up-or-down vote on any amendment, bill, or nomination, without any effort at all. A senator can simply call in an objection and go off to dinner or even fly off to vacation. Each of these "silent filibusters" means a supermajority of 60 votes is needed for the Senate to take action, and requires days or weeks to overcome even when those 60 votes can be found.
Our Founding Fathers knew that blocking the will of the majority was a drastic step, and deliberately limited it to a handful of very special cases, like overriding a presidential veto and ratifying a treaty. They would be horrified at what the Senate has become.
The abuse of the filibuster has become rampant over the last few years. When Lyndon Johnson was majority leader, he only had to deal with one filibuster. But in the last six years, Harry Reid has faced 386 filibusters as majority leader. Frankly, it's amazing that any legislation actually passes the Senate.
To make the filibuster once again a useful tool for minorities to be heard, we should replace the current "silent filibuster" with the "talking filibuster." Senators voting for more debate would actually have to debate. This requirement would force filibustering senators to make their case before their colleagues and before the public.
This talking filibuster would, by requiring senators to invest time and energy, strip away a large number of the frivolous filibusters. Moreover, it would allow the public to decide whether the filibusterers are heroes or bums and to encourage their home state senators to vote accordingly on the next opportunity to end debate.
The beauty of this approach, the kind of filibuster Jimmy Stewart's character used in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is that this is the way the American people already think the filibuster works. Let's make it so!
About Jeff Merkley Democratic Senator from Oregon
Mitch McConnell Senate Minority Leader
KC Johnson Professor at Brooklyn College
John C. Fortier Director of the Democracy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center