Jeff Merkley's Plan to Fix the U.S. Senate Gains Momentum

Jon Isaacs

The new Senate will face one of its most momentous decisions in its opening hours on Wednesday: a vote on whether to change its rules to prohibit the widespread abuse of the filibuster. Americans are fed up with Washington gridlock. The Senate should seize the opportunity.

You probably haven't noticed, but Senator Jeff Merkley's plan to fix the U.S. Senate has been growing. The latest endorsement for the Merkley plan to change the filibuster came yesterday from the New York Times Editorial Board. And if you missed it, The Washington Post's Ezra Klein ran a fantastic interview with Merkley about his plan before Christmas. Here at home the Merkley plan to fix the Senate had already been endorsed by the Eugene Register Guard and The Daily Astorian, and the Oregonian ran this great article about his leadership on filibuster reform in November.

The reason I said "you probably didn't notice" is that filibuster and rules reform are not exactly the sexiest issues. Working to "make the process work" isn't going to earn huge approval ratings in the latest polling. However, it is possibly the most important plan being proposed by any Senator or Representative with any chance of truly restoring some semblance of functionality to the United States Senate. I think the Daily Astorian says it best: "Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley is a work horse."

Merkley's plan has the support of a majority of Senators, which is all that is needed to change the rules. This is why Senator Harkin said, “There could be some fireworks. There could be some fireworks on January fifth," as Kari noted in yesterday's post. And even if it doesn't turn into fireworks, as the New York Times editorial notes, "the fear of such a vote has led Republican leaders to negotiate privately with Democrats in search of a compromise, possibly on amendments. Any plan that does not require filibustering senators to hold the floor and make their case to the public would fall short. The Senate has been crippled long enough."

I'm not going to take the partisan bait on this one. Both parties have abused the filibuster the past decade, upping the ante repeatedly until we reached this point. I was as personally opposed to filibuster abuse when the Republicans were in the majority as I am now. We've reached a point where the simplest pieces of legislation can't get through the process and the power has shifted to the ideological extremes. Senators can hold the entire process hostage for special goodies for their State as a handful did with the health care bill last year. Once this behavior is rewarded (as it was with the health care bill) it just sets the stage for more of it, while pragmatism and problem solving fall by the wayside.

The Merkley plan finds the right balance between ending this modern dysfunction, while respecting the history and importance of the filibuster. Merkley's plan doesn't end the filibuster. It just says, if you want to filibuster, you have to actually make your case to the public.

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