Why reforming the filibuster matters


As Washington turns its attention to infrastructure and other matters of policy, the Senate filibuster isn’t commanding quite the same headlines as it did a few weeks back. But that’s only because the issue is percolating behind the scenes. At some point, it will return to the limelight.

And when it does, you should understand what’s at stake. Because as obscure as it seems, it actually goes to the heart of how we operate as a democracy.

The key point to remember is that a growing number of senators have come to represent a shrinking portion of Americans.

Current rules require 60 senators to agree to move a measure forward, with certain exceptions, which means that 41 senators can block most legislation. In theory, senators coming from the 21 smallest states — representing less than 12% of the U.S. population — can keep the nation’s agenda from moving forward.

It is remarkably easy for the leader of the Senate minority, Republican Mitch McConnell, to muster the 41 votes he needs simply to block legislation from moving forward. It’s a silent and powerful parliamentary move: Without Americans as a whole or senators’ constituents being any the wiser, bills die without coming up for a vote and there are no fingerprints on the murder weapon.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for maintaining rules that slow legislation down and ensure that the majority can’t simply get what it wants without negotiating. But the key word is “negotiating” — when the filibuster is used simply to ensure that a president and elected majority can’t get a bill considered, it’s become something else.

There are options short of outright ending the filibuster, including expanding the breadth of bills that are exempt from the 60-vote requirement to move forward, reducing the 60-vote requirement for certain types of bills, or reviving the requirement that senators intent on blocking legislation actually must get up and talk about it.

The Senate’s rules are a big reason we have a Congress that struggles to get things done. I believe wholeheartedly in representative democracy, and in not trying to shortcut it or to restrict it. Proposals in front of Congress should be able to get a full debate and an up-or-down vote in which Americans’ elected representatives make clear where they stand. The current filibuster allows a small group of them to sidestep all that.

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