Jeff Merkley, Oregon’s junior U.S. senator, is continuing to push a proposal to reform the filibuster process in the Senate — and the battle may come to a head this week as senators return to Washington, D.C.
Merkley, a Democrat, has been among a band of reformers seeking to increase transparency and accountability in the Senate, and he’s drawn attention for his call that the Senate reinstitute a “talking filibuster” rule — one in which senators who wish to delay action on a measure must actually occupy the Senate floor and speak without cease.
Of course, this is how Americans believe filibusters take place now, assuming that they think about filibusters at all. Our image of the filibuster is shaped forever by the 1939 Jimmy Stewart classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which Stewart’s Jefferson Smith speaks on the Senate floor for 24 straight hours in an attempt to call attention to some slimy senatorial dealings.
And, in fact, that’s kind of how filibusters worked — someone actually had to talk on the Senate floor — until the early 1980s, when Democratic leaders introduced new procedural rules that allowed senators to block any bill by declaring a so-called “silent filibuster.”
Procedural rules like that — and the Senate is full of them — help to explain why the Senate session that ended last year was the least productive in history in terms of getting legislation passed. Once a filibuster starts, it takes 60 votes and usually at least a week to stop it.
Worse, it sometimes is difficult — if not impossible — to figure out which senator has silently moved to kill a measure.
Merkley has been making the rounds in D.C. and Oregon to make the case for Senate reform. Those rounds last week included a quick call to the Democrat-Herald newsroom.
As he considers potential reforms, he said, here’s the acid test he tries to keep in mind: “Could I accept these if I were in the minority? Do they seem fair?”
He thinks his proposals — which include measures in addition to the talking filibuster — pass the test. “It seems an appropriate vote for dialogue and accountability,” he said. And, he added, the talking filibuster puts such a demand on a senator’s time — which already, he noted, is “really constricted” — that the tactic would lose some of its appeal as a delaying maneuver.
This round of the battle could be settled this week, when the Senate reconvenes for the start of its new term. Over the last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been working on a more modest proposal for reform that may not include the talking filibuster. Senators, who tend to be cautious about changing procedural rules, may end up embracing the Reid proposal.
But Merkley’s still in the fight: Late last week, one of his aides told the D.C. website Talking Points Memo that the senator still thought the talking filibuster proposal could pass, and that the Reid proposal wouldn’t solve the biggest procedural problems plaguing the Senate.
In fact, I can envision a dramatic scene, an updated take on “Mr. Smith,” in which Merkley and his other Senate reformers storm the floor and speak nonstop about the need to fix those problems.
I’d tune in. Of course, I’d probably change the channel after about an hour, unless the senators were reading something compelling — a good political thriller, maybe.
But it still seems like a good fight, and I’ll be watching to see how it plays out. (mm)