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Filibuster reform, sort of

It would have been better to end the obstructive procedural tactic, but incremental progress toward a more functional Senate is better than nothing.

January 25, 2013
  • Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) speaks about the debt ceiling on Jan. 23 in Washington, D.C. On Thursday, Reid struck a compromise with his GOP counterpart, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to limit filibusters.
Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) speaks about the debt ceiling… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )

Senate leaders reached a compromise this week on limiting the filibuster, an obstructive procedural tactic that has become almost as routine on Capitol Hill as photo opportunities and news conferences. The Times' editorial board has long argued that the right approach would be to end the rule, not mend it. The best that can be said for this week's deal is that incremental progress toward a more functional Senate is better than no progress at all.

The compromise struck Thursday between Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his GOP counterpart, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, would bar filibusters only on motions to begin debating bills and only if members of each party were guaranteed the opportunity to offer at least two amendments. Other changes would reduce the number of filibusters per measure and shorten the wait before voting on them.

Anti-filibuster groups reacted with understandable dismay at the deal. They had wanted to require filibustering lawmakers to appear on the Senate floor to try to talk a bill to death. They also wanted Reid to plow through Republican opposition by using the so-called nuclear option, changing the filibuster rule on a simple majority vote.

Reid said he wasn't willing to take such dramatic steps because he thought they'd kill the filibuster, which he wasn't ready to do. But the compromise won't even stop the filibuster from being used day in and day out. In particular, the deal should have barred filibusters on lower-level executive branch nominees and required the minority to produce 41 votes to sustain a filibuster, rather than requiring the majority to come up with 60 votes to end it.

It's worth noting that both sides feel aggrieved about the way the Senate currently operates. Democrats complain that even noncontroversial measures get held hostage, sometimes by just a single Republican senator. And Republicans argue that they've been forced to filibuster even routine motions to begin debate on a bill because Reid moves so frequently to block the GOP from offering amendments. That's too charitable a description of the stall tactics. But Republicans have a point: The Senate can't live up to its moniker as the "world's greatest deliberative body" if members aren't allowed to debate and amend.

Ultimately, the goal isn't to make it easier for Congress to pass laws. After all, the filibuster didn't cause the polarization of the two parties or thin the herd of pragmatic moderates on Capitol Hill. The goal for reformers should be to raise the quality of what comes out of the Senate. That means allowing more bills not just to be considered on the Senate floor but also improved and amended there. The Reid-McConnell compromise is a step in the right direction, although it's a disappointingly small one.

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