In responsible hands, the filibuster is a valuable parliamentary tool in the U.S. Senate. It prevents narrow majorities from overrunning the priorities of a passionate minority. But it can't work when the minority party paints its opponents as traitors or flat-out un-American.
Both parties in the past have been guilty of overusing this tool, but since the election of President Obama in 2008, the Republicans in the Senate have been on a tear. Their goal is to obstruct virtually everything that Democrats propose, perhaps sometimes out of genuine fundamental disagreement, but more often in mere slavish obedience to their tea party masters.
The consequence is that nothing gets done. We are facing the genuinely frightening prospect of a "fiscal cliff" because of Republican obstructionism. An unwillingness to compromise – Democrats had offered budget cuts – backed up in the Senate by the misuse of the filibuster has led the country to a place where a new recession is entirely possible and, to hear some on both sides talk about it, even likely.
The New York Times on Sunday published an in-depth article on the Senate's "two-decade slide into partisan gridlock," and it made clear that both parties share some of the blame. But a two-decade slide is not a transitory phase. The fact is that the Senate's character has changed. No longer is it the "saucer" to cool the passions of the House, but a steaming petri dish of its own. Thus it is necessary to consider the possibility that the filibuster, at least in its current form, has become more trouble to the country than it is worth.
Several years ago, that would have been a difficult question, because one senator's passion is another's poison. If Democrats try to do away with the filibuster now, they may regret it when, as will surely occur, Republicans again dominate the Senate. Today, though, the question is simpler: Can the Congress, with senators irresponsibly wielding the filibuster, conduct the nation's business? The answer – as of today, at least – is no. Something has to give.
There is much to like in a proposal being considered by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. That plan would preserve the filibuster but limit when it can be used and also make it more of a commitment by those using it.
If adopted, the filibuster would still be allowed on final votes on legislation and on votes to confirm nominees, but it would be prohibited on motions to take up legislation or nominations and motions to negotiate approved legislation with the House.
Furthermore, harkening back to the original form of the filibuster, it would require the filibusterer to actually go on the floor and speak.
Republicans are sure to resist. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., disingenuously says the party needs that lever to shape discussions over a pending issue. But that's not what Republicans have been doing. They merely have sought to obstruct, which is a misuse of this extraordinary power.
Unless there is some reason to believe – soon – that Republicans will restrain their promiscuous use of the filibuster, Democrats should move in that direction. The filibuster will still be available to block legislation the minority finds objectionable, while also requiring those opponents to put their heart into it. It's a fair approach.