The workhorse of the US Senate

Carla Axtman

Years ago, baseball pitchers had a tool in their arsenal known as the spitball. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the spitter was popularized and perfected for pitchers around the American League. But after a few years, pitchers began to abuse the pitch. They'd discolor the normally white ball using tobacco spit or mud/dirt, making the ball virtually impossible for a batter to see in low light. Not only did hitters have trouble getting the bat to the ball, it was extremely difficult to avoid being hit by the ball as well. As the result of a spitter hitting and killing Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, the pitch was outlawed in baseball.

In a similar same way, the abuse by the Senate GOP of the filibuster is killing the US Senate. The body is virtually under paralysis, unable to to push forward some of it's most basic duties. The unglamorous, difficult work of changing this mess has been led, in part, by our own US Senator, Jeff Merkley.

Editorial, Daily Astorian:

In the lore of Congress, there is a fabled observation that among congressmen, “There are show horses and there are work horses.”** Show horses are quick to seek a headline. Work horses are senators who work the phones and the cloakroom and know how to count the votes.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley is a work horse. His latest project is to amend Senate rules to curtail the filibuster’s proliferation. It sounds like a quixotic venture, but Merkley has gained allies and collaborators in both parties.

The Senate may change its rules at the beginning of a new Congress. That will occur in January. And the key knowledge is that a vote on rule change may not be filibustered.

What we know today as a filibuster used to be known as extended debate. It was originally seen as a courtesy. Unlike the much larger House of Representatives, which controls debate through rules that govern the discussion of each bill, the Senate’s more leisurely discussion “was designed for senators to hear each other out,” notes Merkley. “Now that courtesy has changed into a procedural objection to a vote that is paralyzing the Senate."

Oregonians take note: your Senator is working, virtually under the radar--to do the difficult, sweat-equity task of trying to repair an entrenched mess. It's not headline grabbing stuff. It's the sort of esoteric, complex work of someone who really understands how legislative bodies are supposed to function.

I hope you all are as proud of him as I am.

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    This is why we worked so hard to elect him.

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    Sen. Merkley is a praiseworthy public servant. He is exemplar of what a U.S. Senator should be. I wish his colleagues might be more influenced than they seem to be at present.

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    Oregon has a long and storied history with the the U.S. Senate filibuster. Get a copy of A. Robert Smith's bio of the late U.S. Senator Wayne Morse. He actually filibustered!

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    Carla, great posting. I think it's a bit early to brand Merkley a "work horse" but I appreciate the spirit of the editorial.

    As Russell notes, the filibuster ("free booter") has deep historical roots. For those who are can dig through a bit more dry prose, here are a few sources (interestingly, the Wawro and Schickler book starts out with the example of the debate over Oregon statehood--it's available in the free section from

    I would NOT recommend the Wawro and Schickler unless you are willing to dig through some heavily technical stuff; the Binder books are much more accessible.

    Politics or Principle: Filibustering in the U.S. Senate. Sarah Binder and Steven Smith.

    Minority Rights, Majority Rule: Partisanship and the Development of Congress. Sarah Binder. Ch. 7 deals with minority obstructionism in the Senate.

    Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the US Senate. Greg Wawro and Eric Schickler.

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    On the comments about the GOP--while the GOP has mastered the art of using the filibuster to obstruct congressional action, they developed these skills when they were in the minority in the 1970s and 80s and the entrenched Democratic majority was unresponsive to Republican demands for a voice in the creation of legislation.

    But the Democrats, when they were in minority status, were just as aggressive in the use of the filibuster (remember the "nuclear option"?).

    Merkley's proposal--to move back to what most understood as the extended debate filibuster and no longer honor motions of order and procedural filibusters--is quite reasonable and should be supported.

    If you want to stop legislation, you should be willing up and defend your reasoning.

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      Paul, two points:

      The Republicans had the majority in the Senate from 1981 - 1986.

      The requirement to get at least 60 votes in order to pass anything is unprecedented.

      Whenever something is abused it is at risk of being taken away.

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        Michael, thanks for the correction, I was writing broadly. It was in the 70s and particularly when they lost their Senate majority that the filibustering really ramped up.

        The requirement to get 60 votes is historically unprecedented, but it has been the case in the Senate for the past few sessions.

        My point is just that both parties have abused the filibuster. This past session was particularly egregious, but the Democrats abused it as well regarding Bush's judicial nominees.

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    Kind of difficult to consider anyone a workhorse after less than one third of their first term in office. Seems that much of his 'hard work' has been more about grabbing headlines and posturing. even his new found interest in the evils of the filibuster did not fully forment until after the supermajority was lost.

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      Setting aside the fact that Merkley has been working on the filibuster reform issue since early last Summer (likely before that, that's just when I first heard about it), it's pretty obvious that Merkley is a work horse so far. The guy hardly nabs attention for this stuff relative to other Senator "show horses".

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    Sen. Merkley will be happy about this news, all returning 53 Dem senators are in favor of filibuster reform.

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    Yep. Workhorse. He's all of that!

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