Better Filibuster Reform, Please

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Greg Sargent spoke recently with Senator Jeff Merkley, who says that filibuster reform is in trouble:

“Filibuster reform has more momentum than it has had in a generation,” Merkley said. “But it’s not a sure thing, because there are great concerns over changing the rules in an institution that rarely changes its rules. We have a few short weeks. Unless folks mobilize outside of this building and drive a message home, then reform of the filibuster may fizzle.”

The problem is not that filibuster reform won’t happen — if it came down to it, Dems would likely be able to mobilize 51 votes to pass reforms via a simple majority. Rather, the problem is that Democratic reluctance to go for this “constitutional option” is causing them to lean more towards negotiating a deal with Republicans — enabling it to pass without the constitutional option — that risks diluting reform. In other words, even if Dems can pass reform via simple majority, enough Dems may end up preferring instead to reach a deal with Republicans on a less comprehensive reform package.

Part of the problem here may lie with the proposed reforms. Merkley, for example, has been pushing the “talking filibuster,” which would require the minority party to keep talking if they want to keep filibustering. But I’m barely willing to write about that, let alone start mobilizing over it. I simply don’t think it would have the slightest effect. Republicans would have little trouble keeping up a filibuster via tag-teaming, and the Senate would grind to a complete halt while it was going on. The end result would be to slow down the Senate more than under the current rules. Hell, if I were Mitch McConnell, I’d offer to cosponsor this “reform.”

In fairness, Merkley has also made other proposals. He wants to end the ability to filibuster a mere motion to debate, and he wants to end the rule that allows the minority to tie up the Senate for 30 hours even after a filibuster has been broken. Those are both good ideas, though hardly groundbreaking ones. They’d change the minority’s ability to obstruct only at the margin.

I honestly have no idea why liberals are so entranced by the talking filibuster. Maybe they’ve watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one too many times. But frankly, if Merkley wants me to get more excited, I need some proposals to get excited about. Forget the talking filibuster. It’s a dead end. Instead, let’s hear some proposals that would make a real difference, especially in the confirmation of executive branch appointments.

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