WHAT OTHERS SAY: Filibuster needs fixing, but it can wait until after the 'fiscal cliff' is fixed

Monday, December 3, 2012 | 3:44 p.m. CST

Sen. Roy Blunt suggested last week that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was “kicking over a hornet’s nest” by talking about changing Senate filibuster rules. The Missouri Republican was right, but it’s a nest that’s needed kicking for decades.

Senators in the minority party — including Mr. Reid when he was in that position — generally oppose changing the filibuster rule back to where it stood before 1961. Back then, senators actually had to stand and talk to block legislation from moving. Gradually the rule was modified until, in 1975, it was changed to require a simple “cloture vote” of 60 senators to close debate and move legislation ahead.

The rule was not widely abused until recent years. Increasingly, whatever party is in the minority now merely threatens a filibuster; without 60 votes, the majority can’t pass a cloture motion. The problem with changing the rule back to the stand-and-talk option is that rule changes need 60 votes, too.

But Mr. Reid argues that on the first day of any Congress — and the 113th Congress convenes Jan. 3 — the Senate can change its rules by a simple majority of 51 votes. Democrats will have 55 seats in the next Congress.

Mr. Reid argued against that so-called “nuclear option” in 2005 when Republicans threatened to invoke it. So did a freshman Democrat from Illinois named Barack Obama.

Talk of mass destruction is intended to scare voters into thinking that the majority is trying to turn the so-called world’s greatest deliberative body into a rhetorical wasteland.

Right now filibuster talk is a distraction. Mr. Reid and his cohorts should be focused entirely on fixing the “fiscal cliff,” negotiating a bipartisan compromise on a combination of revenue increases and budget cuts that would avoid the combination of fiscal crises that loom at year’s end. Anything short of success in those negotiations could lead to more recession. To mix a metaphor, falling off the cliff is the real nuclear option.

Like most debates in Congress, memories are short about arcane rules that determine how and when certain votes can come to the floor. Despite protestations from Mr. Blunt and others, the filibuster in its current form hasn’t been a Senate staple since the Ford administration.

The modern filibuster rules enable the Senate to work a Tuesday-through-Thursday week, leaving plenty of time for fundraising calls and trips back home on long weeks.

Nobody has to stand and talk. Nobody has to set up cots in the Senate cloakroom. The filibuster isn’t reserved for big issues of national importance, as it once was by Southern Democrats trying to block civil rights legislation. No, the Republicans have used the filibuster to block discussion of nearly every issue imaginable.

The numbers are compelling. There were more filibusters in the 111th Congress (2009 to 2010) than in the '50s, '60s and '70s combined. In his six years as majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson faced one filibuster, the aforementioned historic battle about civil rights. In his five years, Mr. Reid has faced 368 filibusters.

This year, we suggested that the U.S. Senate follow the example of the Missouri Senate, which has a strong and effective filibuster rule. The rule changes proposed by Mr. Reid are quite similar to the way the filibuster works in Missouri. It would require senators to stand and hold the floor in order to block debate.

Here’s our question for Mr. Blunt and his cohorts: If the U.S. Senate version of the filibuster is so necessary to the preservation of democracy as we know it, why don’t you call on incoming Missouri Senate president pro tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, to adopt the supposedly superior Washington rules? We’re sure all nine Democrats in the Missouri Senate would thank him for freeing them up from long nights on the floor.

Missouri’s filibuster rules are better, and they work for both Democrats and Republicans who have sought to block legislation. The filibuster in Missouri is effective when needed, but it generally isn’t abused because it’s difficult to use. Mr. Reid is right to seek to mimic those rules.

Individual senators, of the minority party or not, will still be able to block legislation, they’ll just have to work harder at it and actually spend a bit of time on the floor instead of at cocktail parties and fundraisers.

Fix the fiscal cliff first. But fix the filibuster, too.

And fix the unfair Senate rule that allows a single senator to place an anonymous “hold” on legislation to keep it from reaching the floor for debate. The nation needs its senators to go to work and stop acting like prima donnas.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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