Senate Democrats are afraid to make their Republicans colleagues filibuster anything. I know, it seems like the Republicans filibuster everything, since key legislation is routinely subjected to a 60-vote requirement under the threat of a filibuster. Those filibuster threats are rarely called, however, so the minority party gets to exert leverage without looking obstructionist. After watching this absurdity playing out in the stimulus debate, people are calling on Sen. Reid to make the Republicans follow through and actually filibuster legislation -- go on the floor, waste time or talk endlessly -- and show this spectacle to the public. Now Reid has unveiled an official response: a historical memo arguing that he is all but powerless to tackle this problem. That is wrong.
According to Huffington Post's Ryan Grim, in an article that primarily covers Reid's view, the memo concludes that a senator who filibusters "can't be forced to keep talking for an indefinite period of time." Republicans could filibuster without actually having to talk much, goes the argument, so calling their bluff won't work. Grim's article, "The Myth Of The Filibuster: Dems Can't Make Republicans Talk All Night," also recalls one incident in 1988 when a talk-less filibuster worked. But it's all beside the point.
When I worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2003, both parties used "holds" and filibuster threats all the time. By mutual agreement, however, these filibuster threats operate out of the public's view. So senators -- even a single one -- can threaten to stall the entire chamber's proceedings, while avoiding the cost of any public criticism for their maneuver.
Forcing senators to actually filibuster on the floor would increase public information and scrutiny of this practice. It would almost certainly reduce some of the recent abuse. It really doesn't matter much whether senators talk the whole time, or ask for quorums, or play sudoku. Yes, movie filibusters may be full of dramatic sermons. But if the Republicans were forced into even a silent filibuster, spending weeks thwarting up-or-down votes on the country's economic agenda, the public would surely notice. Especially if Sen. Reid criticized them for it -- instead of writing memos defending the status quo.