It's time to fix the filibuster

Make no mistake - this is an uphill struggle. The only way we're going to prevail and change the rules is if the people demand change.

By Senator Jeff Merkley.

If you are as frustrated and angry as I am about the abuse of the filibuster to block good legislation, I invite you to add your voice to the petition I'm launching to reform the filibuster.

Last week, the Republican Minority Leader and 40 of his Republican colleagues sent a letter vowing to block every bill until the Senate passes bonus tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. These Republican obstructionist tactics are nothing new in the Senate. The last two years they've made it their #1 priority to prevent the Senate from functioning by blocking countless judicial nominations and bills from even being debated before the American public.

The Senate, which was once referred to as the “world’s most deliberative body,” has since become a dysfunctional institution where blocked bills are more common than bills enacted into law. At the heart of Senate dysfunction lies the filibuster – a tool that was once used rarely and is now regularly abused to effectively grind all three branches of government to a halt.

When many Americans think of the filibuster, they recall the scene from the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where Senator Smith attempts to prove his innocence by holding the Senate floor until he eventually collapses from exhaustion.

The Senators who have been filibustering non-controversial nominees and bills for the last several years are nothing like the courageous Mr. Smith. In today’s Senate, a member can block the Senate from voting on a bill or even bringing it to the floor with a 20 second phone call to a clerk. They don’t have to stay on the floor and defend their actions in front of the American people, or even reveal their identities - they can pack up their things and go on vacation if they want to.

Come January, my friend and colleague Senator Tom Udall will be introducing a resolution for the Senate to consider new rules, and we need to use that opportunity to bring democracy and accountability back to the Senate.

Make no mistake - this is an uphill struggle. There are plenty of people in Washington who like being able to preserve the status quo with only 41 votes in the Senate. The only way we're going to prevail and change the rules is if the people demand change. That's why I've started a petition calling on the Senate to make three common-sense changes to its rules so that we can fix the filibuster and do the work the American people elected us to do:

  1. Make the filibuster real. If one or more Senators wants to filibuster a bill, they should be required to hold the floor and fight for what they believe in.

  2. Don't give Senators multiple chances to filibuster the same bill. In recent years, Republicans have regularly filibustered routine parliamentary steps, even on measures that ultimately pass almost unanimously.

  3. Bring fair deliberation back to the floor of the Senate. Ensure that Senators of both parties have the chance to offer amendments and have those amendments voted on without giving any one Senator veto power.

If you believe that we need to fix the filibuster and make Senators who want to overrule the majority accountable, please add your voice to this cause.

We all know that America is facing a number of big long-term challenges -- from backbreaking unemployment to record foreclosures that are destroying communities across America. If the Senate can’t pass bills, it’s not the Senators who will pay a real price – it’s the American people. We're seeing the consequences of Senate inaction as 2 million jobless Americans lost their unemployment benefits last week because Republicans blocked the unemployment insurance bill. We have to end the abuse that is undermining the will of the American people, and putting the livelihoods of working families at risk. Please join me in the cause to fix the filibuster.

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    Thank you, Senator, for your leadership on this important topic. I just posted something on this today myself ( with credit to you for putting a plan out there. We need to fix the way the Senate operates. I'm glad you're there to help.

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    Although I don't necessarily agree with Senator Merkley on this one, I have always respected him for his firm stand on principles. Several of which we agree on, probably to the surprise of many on BO.

    Senator Merkley showed this way back as a state rep. I do appreciate him for being his own person.

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    For those of you who are feeling a bit distraught at what's going on in DC: this is what real leadership looks like.

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    Thank you, Senator. I just signed the petition. Keep up the good fight!

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    OT but very current issue: What is your position on the "tax deal" that the administration worked out with the GOP?

    What is your game plan should that vote fail in the House and/or Senate?

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    I support your work on filibuster reform, Senator, and I signed the petition. It is at least two years overdue, and I hope you can get it through.

    Out of curiosity, though -- why didn't Senate Democrats at least threaten to use the "nuclear option" (aka "constitutional option") to kill the current closure rule at any time over the past year or so?

    With the Republicans abusing the filibuster to such an unprecedented degree, it would have been very much in the interests of the majority party to destroy that roadblock. At that point, Democrats could have pushed your agenda through. At the same time, Republicans would have seen real urgency to get a new closure rule that preserved the right to extended debate, but prevented purely malicious obstruction. There probably would have been 2/3rd support for a bipartisan closure rule if your party had nuked the old one.

    Instead, your caucus allowed the Republicans to continually block your agenda. That probably had a lot to do with the "shellacking" your party suffered in November.

    Anyway, your caucus COULD have blown up the filibuster and passed a lot of legislation if 51 of you had wanted it. So why didn't it happen?

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    Fantastic! This is easily the least divisive, easily accepted alternative to the current system, and one any minority party could live with. It's a sane and one might even say conservative approach to fixing the broken Senate. This might even make it "the world's greatest deliberative body" again. Good luck!

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    Seems like a good, viable reform. Is there any support for it?

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    Looks to me like this is a drive-by....hit and run.

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    Hello Senator Merkley,

    Thank you for creating the petition. Your leadership on this and many other issues is greatly appreciated.

    Best wishes for the holidays to you and your family.


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    Well done senator. I really hope this goes through.

    Congress needs more debates. We need to get everyone talking to each other, even if you forcibly disagree.

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    Anyone know where Senator Wyden is on this?

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    What doesn't make sense is why is Sen. Merkley posting here. We're not the ones who need convincing. It's his own Dem. colleagues.

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      What, he can't do both?

      Besides, who is "we"? Many more read this blog than post on it and I'll bet that not everyone who reads it is on board yet. Perhaps the Senator's post will sway them.

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    I assume everyone understands this means that if a Republican is elected president in 2012 with a Republican majority in the Senate, Democrats won't be able to filibuster a pro-life Supreme Court nominee to replace, say, Justice Ginsburg.

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      Jack, we got several pro-life SC judges from the GOP, including especially Samuel Alito to replace a pro-choice judge. And the Dems didn't have the courage to filibuster that one, who may well overturn Roe v. Wade. I'm thinking the GOP politicos don't want Roe v. Wade overturned as it will take away their big electoral issue with a large chunk of the religious conservatives, who will turn their attention to how badly they are getting screwed by your party's total alignment with Wall St. and the multinational corporations. And the truth is that most Americans don't want to criminalize abortion and throw women and doctors in jail except in Kansas and the Confederacy.

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        Addendum: Jack, the way I read this the Dems or GOP could still filibuster an SC nominee but they would have to hold the floor and make it a real filibuster. If memory serves, our own Wayne Morse was known to mount a real filibuster.

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          You're right, he did. Those were real filibusters in those days; now it's basically a 60-vote hurdle to bring almost anything contentious to the floor.

          I'm not opposed to filibuster reform, but I think people need to be reminded that it cuts both ways. It was in response to judicial nominees that Republicans threatened to eliminate the filibuster when we were in the majority and also controlled the White House.

          I was glad that cooler heads prevailed then and I think we should be careful this time, too. Not to mention the fact that with a Republcian-controlled House, there will be fewer times when breaking a filibuster in the Senate will actually matter (except on confirmation votes).

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            The problem is that the degree that the G.O.P. is using the filibuster is unprecedented.

            Never before in the history of the country has it taken 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate. Never.

            When you abuse something, it should be taken away.

            I have no problems making the Republicans (or the Democrats) go through some real pain in order to mount a filibuster. A filibuster should be reserved for special cases.

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              I don't necessarily disagree with that. But Bernie Sanders today gave a good example of what happens when you require a real filibuster. I happen to like the result today but I wonder how many BlueOregon readers do.

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                Grrr. Jack, the beginning of your comment really bugs me. "I don't necessarily disagree with that." Could you get any more mealy-mouthed than that?

                As for Bernie Sanders, judging by my Facebook friends who changed their profile picture to one of Sen. Sanders, I think his performance has gone over pretty well on the left.

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      I don't expect Democrats to filibuster pro-life Supreme Court nominees.

      I do expect them to consider filibustering anti-life anti-abortion nominees like Roberts and Alito and Scalia and Thomas.

      Anti-abortion isn't pro-life. "Justice" Scalia wrote this:

      "This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged 'actual innocence' is constitutionally cognizable."

      Scalia may be anti-abortion, but by no stretch of the imagination is he "pro-life."

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    If I recall, a certain Jeff Merkley tried to block a certain John Lim from voting using procedural nonsense after the Dems retook the State Legislature. (Granted the Repubs had been doing the same thing to the Dems prior) Point is, he had a chance to be the bigger man, and wasn't.

    Now that he's made it to D.C., I'm glad it appears he has come around a bit.

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      Given that Sen. Jeff Merkley was then serving in the Oregon House, a chamber which (like the House of Representatives in Congress) doesn't have a filibuster, the entire premise of your comment is fatally flawed from the outset.

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        Mitchell, I wasn't even going to attempt to respond since we can't even agree that the government does not 'spend' money on tax cuts. I guess it's our difference in perspective.

        I think filibuster reform is a good idea. I'm sorry that you feel my thinking this is fatally flawed.

        I'm well aware that the Oregon House does not have an exact replica of the U.S. Senate's filibuster. I was merely pointing out a time when Senator Merkley used an antiquated 'procedure', not too unlike the filibuster (a name for a 'procedure'), while in the Oregon House to prevent a fellow Rep from voting on an issue. I'm not sure if you were there, but it deadlocked the whole chamber and people were pulling out sleeping bags.

        I think it's a good thing that the Senator has realized that some procedures need reform, so real work can get done. I again apologize you feel my comment and I are fatally flawed. I guess we all can't be perfect. ;)

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    I wonder if Mr. Merkley will be a strident and vocal supporter of filibuster repeal/reform and then magically disappear when it actually comes to a vote..... kind of like he did on the tac cut compromise.

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