THE BLOG
07/09/2013 09:37 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

Give Us a Senate That Works

So here we are, almost six months into President Obama's second term, and you could run a mid-sized country with the number of senior government jobs left vacant by the U.S. Senate.

Just look. There's no labor secretary, and five seats on the National Labor Relations Board sit unfilled. The Environmental Protection Agency lacks an administrator and the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, a key part of the financial system overhaul that was sparked by the Great Recession, has only a temporary head, Richard Cordray, who could be forced from his job at year's end.

At least seven prospective federal judges, all found qualified by the Senate Judiciary Committee, are in limbo on the Senate calendar. The Export-Import Bank is without a president and there are assistant secretary-level openings at the State and Defense Departments. Many more judicial and senior executive nominations are stuck in Senate committees.

All too often, the only thing standing in the way of confirmation is the Senate's filibuster rule and its 60-vote requirement for action. Virtually every Obama nominee at every level has been judged qualified by a majority of senators, including Republicans, but dozens have been denied a vote because a single senator or small group decided to exploit the rules and use a filibuster threat to block them.

And yet a majority of senators, including some in the majority party, continue to stand in the way of rules changes that would let the Senate get on with its business and allow our government to function.

This charade has gone on more than long enough. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, has given Republicans every opportunity to put the filibuster to its intended use as a guardian of full and open debate. But GOP leader Mitch McConnell and his colleagues have broken their repeated "gentlemen's agreements" to end filibuster abuse; instead they use the rule and its 60-vote requirement for Senate action to stifle debate and block action.

So what can be done? Having returned from their 4th of July recess, Democratic senators need to declare their independence from the 60-vote filibuster rule and its tyranny of the minority. Senators always have the power the change their rules and let the majority govern. If they can't or won't, Common Cause's federal lawsuit challenging the supermajority provisions of the Senate's rules is still pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.

If Democrats and perhaps a few rogue Republicans ratchet up their nerve and combine to force a rules change, McConnell warns that when Republicans gain control of the Senate -- as they certainly will at some point -- they'll block every Democratic initiative and leave Democratic senators powerless. But if today's majority acts sensibly now, abolishing the filibuster but crafting a new rule that preserves the minority's right to robust debate, McConnell's threat will evaporate.

Americans want and need a Senate that works. Once they get it, there's no turning back.