Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced today that he will bring filibuster reform up for a vote within 36 hours, whether or not a deal with Republicans is reached. The details of reform will be hashed out between now and then, but here is what could be in there:
1. The talking filibuster. Right now, any senator can filibuster a bill just by saying they intend to hold it up—a so-called “silent filibuster.” It requires no effort and no public exposure. One solution being pushed by Jeff Merkley and (D-OR) and Tom Udall (D-NM) is the talking filibuster, in which senators would have to pull a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and actually hold the floor by standing there and talking. This would undoubtedly happen sometimes, but presumably not for judges that the senator is planning on voting for anyway. Yes, many times during Obama’s first term, Republicans held up a nomination of a judge or appointee that they later voted for, just so that they could slow things down.
2. Flipping the burden to the minority. Right now, 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster. One possible reform is changing that to 41 votes needed to maintain a filibuster. Why would this matter? Again it has to do with the energy required to hold up legislation. Right now Republicans can leave just a senator or two in the senate to demand that Democrats meet the 60 vote threshold any time they choose to “end debate” (which gets quotes because there generally isn’t any debate going on. Flipping this burden would require 41 Senators present if they wanted to stop “debate” from ending on one of these bills.
3. Reducing the opportunities to filibuster a bill. Currently bills can be held up at any of six check points, including motions to begin and end debate on a bill. Harry Reid has talked about reducing this to one or two. Senators would still have the opportunity to hold up a bill, but there would only be one or two points at which they could smear molasses on the gears.
It’s unlikely that the reforms that will be voted on will make the Senate into a pure-majority institution (which the House is), but they would make it so if a senator wanted to hold up a bill or a nomination, they would have to be public about it, and have 40 coworkers willing to go along with him. This would be a huge positive for the general functioning of our government—many judgeships and cabinet positions are still vacant because Republicans refuse to confirm anyone—and for Democracy in general. According to the liberal blog Daily Kos, filibusters prevented passing the DREAM Act, the public option in Obamacare and ending “too big to fail” banks. I’m not sure that the reforms Reid will put forward would have allowed those to pass, but right now Republicans would be terrified of the optics of a talking filibuster against the DREAM Act.
Filibuster reform would be a major positive for the principles of Democracy and the actual functioning of our government, and I will do a fist pump in front of my computer if it happens.