Thursday, May 17, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Majority Leader Harry Reid reversed himself last week and came out in favor of reforming the Senate filibuster. Better late than never.
The filibuster is a procedural tool the minority party uses to force the majority party to win 60 votes out of 100 to move ahead with anything, thus paralyzing the routine functions of government.
The advantage of the filibuster for the minority is that the public is only dimly aware of what it is and why it is used. All that voters know is that Washington is gridlocked and broken, and they tend to blame the majority party, not the party using the filibuster to do the gridlocking.
It might seem obvious that Reid would back changes to the filibuster, given that he’s in the majority and is so often the victim of it. But Reid, like many in the world’s most exclusive club, is an institutionalist and traditionalist. He opposed changes proposed in early 2011 by Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., which would have weakened though not eliminated the filibuster. That’s why his statement last week was so important.
To Republican readers: You should welcome Reid’s attack on the filibuster, as Republicans are bound to take back the Senate eventually, and perhaps as early as this year. You’ll have legislative priorities, and they won’t go anywhere if Reid is minority leader and still has the filibuster as it is currently practiced.
As minority leader, Reid used it in 2005 and 2006 to school then-Majority Leader Bill Frist, grinding down Republican legislative initiatives.
More important than any of that, however, the filibuster is just plain wrong, at least as it’s currently being used. The framers of the Constitution were explicit about when a supermajority should be required for Congress to act — impeachment, amending the Constitution, etc. (I’m indebted here to The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who recently wrote a persuasive article on the subject.)
The filibuster was once a minor annoyance, used sparingly. We used to have less party discipline because there were northern liberal Republicans and conservative southern Democrats. And there were social norms — essentially a gentlemen’s agreement — that you didn’t block the majority party just for its own sake.
Now, all Senate business stops without 60 votes.
As a result, important executive branch positions requiring Senate approval are unfilled and even legislation that Republicans support is left to languish because they’ll happily blame Democrats for government inaction and know the public will be none the wiser.
The real test for Reid will be if the Republicans win the majority. Reid understands better than anyone that Washington accusations of hypocrisy on these process issues mean little to the public. So my fear is that if the Republicans win the majority, he’ll reverse course, ignore hypocrisy cries, claim the almighty importance of the filibuster and use it to stop Senate business at every turn. (Then we’ll be forced to endure the bellowing of the conservative talk radio chatty dolls, who will suddenly be extolling saintly majority rule.)
I hope he doesn’t do that. I hope that for the good of the country, a minority leader Reid would do the unthinkable by giving up some power and agreeing not just to reforming the filibuster, but to eliminating it.