This rise in the use of the filibuster, says Norm Ornstein, is one of the symptoms of a broken Senate, a legislative body that can thwart any attempts to introduce significant reform, thanks to a large degree to stalling techniques like the filibuster, a power that is nowhere in the Constitution but that more than any other has the effect of reducing the Senate to the place "where reform goes to die." (Not my expression, but one that I like to quote often for its ability to condense the truth in 5 words.)
As you may know, the threat of a filibuster is one of the main reasons while the Senate's recent health care reform bill falls so badly short of needed reform that many progressives have voiced their opposition to it.
Sen. Harkin (D-IA) now says that he may reintroduce a bill to reform the filibuster in January. Harkin's opponents will try to accuse him of wanting to reform the filibuster because Democrats are in power and changing filibuster rules will benefit them. The accusation should not stick, though, since Harkin originally brought forth the idea of reforming the filibuster when Democrats were in the minority. Ironically, at that time, 15 years ago, one of his allies was Sen. Douche Evilman Lieberman, who has recentlygone on to become the perfect symbol of the corruption of the political process that has made the filibuster more relevant than the president's constitutionally-granted veto power.
My sense of the issue is that the filibuster may be useful, even desirable if used judiciously. For example, it prevents the minority party from being steamrolled for entire legislatures (well, at least it makes it harder.) But since it is obvious that Senators cannot be trusted with making judicious use of the disproportionate, enormous power that the Constitution entrusts them with, reform of the filibuster is at this point necessary for the legislative process not to grind to a complete halt. The question is not if reforming the filibuster is desirable, but how.
Sen. Harkin proposes a "time-limited" filibuster, which would automatically expire after a given period of time (30 days?). I do not like this kind of "timer" mechanism, because a) it would still have the effect of slowing the legislative process to a crawl, and b) it would simply add another facet to the kabuki theater that the Senate has turned in.
My personal preference would be for a mechanism that would not make the filibuster irrelevant, while at the same time resetting the balance of power in Congress between the House and the Senate. As things stand, the Senate enjoys too much power. Many bills born in the House never make it into law because of the obstructionism exerted by Senators. (Which is why I like so much the expression I mentioned earlier, that the Senate is "where reform goes to die.") So, for example, I would favor a system in which the numbers required for the filibuster remain the same in the Senate (requiring 60% of senators to end one) while giving the House the power to end a Senate filibuster if 55% of its members vote for cloture. Why 55% and not 60%? Frankly, it is an entirely arbitrary number, but it seems to me that 60%, being as high a percentage as the one required by the Senate for cloture, would mean that nothing would change.
Setting the percentage required in the House to reverse a filibuster in the Senate at 55% would have two main desirable effects, in my opinion:
- It would encourage the Senate to work toward a workable compromise to thwart the threat of a cloture vote in the House (because Senators would not want to relinquish their power to the "lower" house.
- It would restore a significant portion of the legislative power to the House, which--after all--is the one body of Congress that best reflects the political composition of the nation (in other words, it best embodies the spirit of the "one man, one vote" principle; in the Senate, each state gets two senators, regardless of size, so that one senator from the smallest state in the Union, Wyoming, can single-handedly halt reform needed by 99.9% of the people.)
In any case, it has become painfully obvious that the status quo is not tolerable, and that the nation cannot be hold hostage by a small number of obstructionist senators, bought and paid for by special interest that row against the country's best interest.
As usual, you may do your part by contacting your elected representatives.