The United States Senate has 100 members, and it used to be that if you could get 51 of them to agree on something, you could pass a bill.
Not anymore, though. The magic number today is 60. That’s what you need to break a filibuster, and since 2009, the minority party in the Senate–the Republicans–has insisted on subjecting just about everything Democrats have tried to pass to a filibuster. Major bills, routine legislation, obscure appointments to the federal bench and the executive branch–you name it, Democrats will have well over 50 votes, but not 60, and that will be that.
This is not how the Senate is supposed to operate. For a long time, the filibuster was a tool of last resort for a determined minority–once every few years a band of senators would pull it out to make a dramatic stand against some major piece of legislation. They’d hold the floor for hours, or days, taking advantage of Senate rules that allow for unlimited debate. Sometimes they’d get their way. Often, they were just grandstanding–making a symbolic stand for the folks back home.
But the filibuster evolved over the years. Both parties started using it more, the Senate started slowing down, and the rules were changed to allow for silent filibusters: all the minority party has to do now is put the majority party on notice that it intends to filibuster something, and that’s usually enough. The matter is cast aside and other business proceeds. No need for any Jimmy Stewart/Mr. Smith showmanship anymore. And in the last four years, it’s gotten truly out of hand. The filibuster has become the most important tool in the Republican Party’s efforts to obstruct, stall or otherwise water down President Obama’s agenda.
And Democrats have had it. Majority Leader Harry Reid has been a Senate institution for years, but he’s changed his mind and now says he wants to change the rules for filibusters when the new Senate convenes in January. President Obama signaled today that he’s on board too.
Filibuster reform is badly needed. It would be good for the system. But there’s a problem: the rules changes that Democrats have in mind really won’t change anything.
Their first idea is to get rid of the filibuster on the motion to proceed. What does that mean? It means that a bill could only be filibustered once it’s being debated on the floor–not when senators are deciding whether to bring it to the floor. There’s nothing wrong with this idea, but even if it’s adopted, it will still take 60 votes to pass anything.
The Democrat’s other idea is to force real, talking filibusters. If Republicans want to filibuster something, they’ll have to do it in the open, hold the floor, talk for hours on end, like in the old days. Supposedly, this will shine a light on obstructionism, cause a popular uproar and shame the GOP into backing down. But it won’t: The reality is that Republicans will be happy to stand up and filibuster on the floor–they’ll be hailed as heroes by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, and the donations will pour in. And most average voters just don’t pay attention to what happens in the Senate, so there won’t be much of an outcry over what the GOP is doing.
Bottom line: The problem with the filibuster is that Republicans have used it to make the Senate a 60-vote chamber. Any reform that doesn’t change this basic reality won’t really change anything.