Most Americans live under the impression that representative democracy's basic precept is majority rule. Sadly, that's no longer the case in the U.S. Senate, where the minority party has so abused the filibuster that it (the minority) now controls the action -- or more accurately, the inaction.
This perverts the will of the voters and should not be allowed to stand. As its first order of business next month, the new Senate should reform the filibuster rules in a way that restores fairness to the majority, preserves reasonable rights for the minority and keeps faith with the intent of the Constitution and the voting public. Democrats Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Harkin of Iowa have solid proposals for their fellow senators to consider. What they should not consider is keeping the filibuster rules the way they are.
Let's be clear: This is not a partisan matter. The abusers in this case happen to be Republicans. They have masterfully mounted hundreds of filibusters in recent years to frustrate the majority Democrats and, in the process, have remade their leader, Mitch McConnell, into the Senate's de facto majority leader. But Democrats could -- and probably would -- stoop to the same depths the next time they're relegated to minority status.
As an idea, the filibuster has merit, and when used more sparingly in the past, it has won support from this page. Not rushing to judgment is a main function of the Senate, which was intended as a deliberative body. Extending debate also protects important rights for minority views. But the minority's clear abuse of those rights has gone beyond reason.
Here's the problem. On nearly every major bill, rather than accept a loss by a simple majority, the minority party launches a filibuster -- a procedure that pushes the bill into a limbo of theoretically endless "debate" unless a supermajority of 60 votes can be rounded up to stop it. Getting 60 senators to agree on anything is nearly impossible. So the wheels of government grind to a halt. It's a perfect tactic for the minority, because the public tends to blame the majority for ineffectual leadership.
But it's worse than that. To mount and maintain a filibuster takes no real effort or conviction. The minority party never has to stand up on the Senate floor to defend its position. There is no real debate, no real deliberation on the nation's important business, or on the scores of judges and other federal officials whose nominations the Senate must confirm.
Not since 1970, when "silent filibusters" were adopted, have senators had to hold the floor in the manner made famous by the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) or the endless tag-team ordeals that Strom Thurmond and other southern senators employed against civil-rights legislation in the 1960s.
Even in those bygone days, senators reserved filibusters for extraordinary moments. But now they are routine. In his six years as majority leader, Harry Reid has faced 380 filibusters. Lyndon Johnson, in his six years as majority leader (1955-1961), dealt with one.
"If you had a child acting like this, you'd worry about him," former Vice President Walter Mondale told a University of Minnesota audience last week. As a senator, Mondale led efforts to reform the filibuster in 1975, but clearly his changes weren't enough to halt the abuse.
Merkley's proposal would bring back the traditional "talking filibuster." If more than half of senators voted to end debate, but not the 60 votes required, then senators would have to hold the floor with talking marathons.
Harkin offers a "sliding filibuster." If the 60-vote threshold to halt a filibuster isn't met, a 57-vote threshold kicks in three days later, then a 54-vote threshold three days after that. Finally, after nine days, the bill could pass by a simple majority.
A third option is to get rid of the filibuster altogether. A pending lawsuit from Common Cause proposes just that, arguing that requiring a supermajority is unlawful except on treaties and other matters enumerated in the Constitution.
As currently practiced, the filibuster is a cynical affront to voters and to the precepts of representative democracy. It does not extend debate in a meaningful way. It does not make the Senate a deliberative body. It does more harm than good. It should be reformed at the earliest possible moment.