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Filibuster Reform Becoming Actual Discussion Topic

Ezra Klein, who among others has been pushing filibuster reform for a while now, had a Sunday op-ed in the Washington Post calling more attention to the subject.

In today’s Senate, 55 votes isn’t enough to “win,” or anything close to it; it’s enough to get you five votes away from the 60 votes you need to shut down a filibuster. Only then, in most cases, can a law be passed. The modern Senate is a radically different institution than the Senate of the 1960s, and the dysfunction exhibited in its debate over health care — the absence of bipartisanship, the use of the filibuster to obstruct progress rather than protect debate, the ability of any given senator to hold the bill hostage to his or her demands — has convinced many, both inside and outside the chamber, that it needs to be fixed […]

To understand why the modern legislative process is so bad, why every Senator seems able to demand a king’s ransom in return for his or her vote and no bill ever seems to be truly bipartisan, you need to understand one basic fact: The government can function if the minority party has either the incentive to make the majority fail or the power to make the majority fail. It cannot function if it has both.

It’s notable that the Washington Post would even print a process article, and demand the reform of an antiquated, anti-democratic and paralyzed body. It’s far more notable that Arlen Specter quoted the article on Fox News Sunday yesterday. And that Klein ran supporting articles with Jeff Merkley and Tom Harkin. These, after all, are the people who have the power to reform the Senate. And if they’re listening to this critique, there’s at least a chance for some changes.

I’m sympathetic to my colleague Jon Walker’s complaint that we cannot wait until after health care reform to fix the Senate. But fixing process is something that has to come institutionally, and frankly, it’s going to be slow. It’s surprising that Senators are even daring to brooch the subject before health care is complete. I would totally believe it if Lieberman threatened to block anything and everything just from the loose talk of filibuster reform. That he isn’t suggests he got what he wanted from the Senate bill.

The one person in America who could move this forward outside individual Senators is Barack Obama, but there’s a difference between expressing frustration and advocating for a better outcome. “We’re going to have to return to some sense that governance is more important than politics inside the Senate” is not exactly a bold agenda for change, it’s a faint hope that the Senate can work things out amongst themselves. And just a month or so ago, Obama called Senate process “part of what makes our government stable.” So unfortunately, I’m not expecting much from him.

However, this is an issue where allies across the Democratic spectrum can work together, from progressives to partisans, process wonks to policy wonks. Expanding the limits of the possible could finally put an end to that excruciating “art of the possible” used as a hammer against better policy outcomes. We talk about areas where mass action can “make them do it,” and this could be one, although getting people on the proverbial street corner to chant about super-majorities and filibusters and motions to proceed is not going to be easy. There’s a way to make this about democracy that could inspire people, but that would require creativity and effort.

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David Dayen

David Dayen