New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall has been making some national news lately, and for a good cause. He’s helping lead an effort to change the rules regarding filibusters.
Yes, it’s simply a procedural matter, but it has become a very big deal in the Senate.
Current Senate filibuster rules allow for one senator to essentially block any bill he or she doesn’t like, and only a supermajority (60 votes in the Senate) can break the filibuster. In years past, filibusters required a senator to stand up and speak continuously for hours on end to block a vote, which made them quite rare. But in the 1970s, the Senate loosened the rules to allow “silent” filibusters, which lets a senator delay proceedings, sometimes indefinitely, without having to go to the trouble of standing up against it.
That’s a big reason why last year’s 112th Congress was one of the most unproductive in American history, and it needs to be changed.
In an effort to fix this problem, Udall has partnered with two other Democratic senators, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, to re-create the “talking filibuster” rule, in which senators must stand up and defend their decision to filibuster.
Another proposal is on the table, a bipartisan resolution sponsored by John McCain, R-Arizona, and Carl Levin, D-Michigan, but it’s considered the weaker of the two because it contains a provision that could further obstruct a bill’s progress.
Not surprisingly, the Republican Party is opposed to the Udall measure because it strips them of leverage. And to be fair, if the Democrats were the minority party in the Senate right now, they’d probably be opposed to it too. Moreover, in today’s political climate, who would expect anything less than a partisan divide? But all that doesn’t negate the fact that the Senate was designed to be run by majority rule, not by a supermajority.
The change Udall, Harkin and Merkley are pushing would be a return to normalcy. It most certainly would not eliminate the partisan bickering that has overcome Washington in recent years, but it would allow the Senate to do its job.
Meanwhile, party leaders on both sides are in discussions to resolve the issue in a way both sides can live with. The result may be a negotiated proposal coming to the floor as early as Jan. 22. Whatever they come up with needs to be strong enough to make the Senate functional again. Otherwise the 113th Congress could turn out to be as ineffective as the 112th.