Monday, January 4, 2010

Is It Time to End the Filibuster?

Jimmy Stewart as Mr Smith, filibustering
Ezra Klein, writing for the Washington Post (reprinted in the Star Tribune Saturday, Jan. 2), made a cogent argument for getting rid of the filibuster rule in the Senate. Lately, I'm not much of a fan of the rule, but I recall times in the past when I was glad it was there to stop bills I completely disagreed with. So I've been feeling torn about the idea of repeal.

Klein, however, points out that it wasn't until the '90s (during the Clinton/Gingrich/Dole years) that it became a "strategy of relentless obstruction." According to a political scientist cited, only 8 percent of major Senate bills faced a filibuster in the '60s; in the 2000s, it was 70 percent. As freshman Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley put it, that's "not a filibuster anymore. That's a supermajority requirement. And when that becomes commonly used, it's a recipe for paralysis."

Merkley has floated the idea of eliminating the filibuster with a six- or eight-year delay before implementation, because then neither party would know who would have a majority when it was put into effect. He hopes that his colleagues can see this as a bipartisan issue. To use Klein's well chosen words:

Members of both parties often take the fact that neither Democrats nor Republicans can govern effectively to mean they benefit from the filibuster half the time. In reality, the country loses the benefits of a working legislature all the time.

But members of both parties have become attached to this idea that they can block objectionable legislation even when they're relatively powerless. This is evidence, perhaps, that both parties are so used to the victories of obstruction that they have forgotten their purpose is to amass victories through governance. Either way, a world in which the majority can pass its agenda is a better one, a place where the majority party is held accountable for its ideas and not for the gridlock and inaction furnished by the Senate's rules.
It's been a long time since the filibuster was a tool for mavericks like Mr. Smith when he went to Washington. It's probably time the Senate gave it up and got some business done, even if it's business I disagree with.

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