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Defrosting the Senate

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The fight over the fiscal cliff has dominated the news, but it’s not the only threat to the nation’s economic stability and progress. Unless the Senate fixes the filibuster at the start of the next Congress, the growing list of crucial national issues to resolve will continue to languish in a Senate where nothing gets done.

To end this obstruction, the Senate must change the filibuster so a minority of members no longer cripples our government. Any threats to derail these reforms prove how desperately change is needed -- and the risks of failing to act.

Romanticized remembrances of the filibuster invoke George Washington’s description of the Senate as a saucer that cools the legislative process. And, indeed, until recent years, senators used the filibuster infrequently at times of intense minority opposition. But today, the filibuster doesn’t cool the legislative process -- it freezes it.

During Lyndon Johnson’s six year tenure as majority leader, he faced just one filibuster. By comparison, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has faced 386 in his six year tenure. This rampant obstruction has had a clear effect on the functioning of our democracy. At its peak efficiency in 1955-56, the Senate passed nearly 27 percent of the bills introduced in the chamber, compared to a record-low 2.8 percent in the past two years.

But, filibuster abuse won’t fix itself.

As a recent Brennan Center report details, last year’s informal “handshake” deal to reduce filibuster abuse and restore comity flopped. The pace of obstruction -- on both sides of the aisle -- only worsened. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) even filibustered himself last week.

This state of entrenched obstruction will only improve if senators vote to change the rules. Some politicians are threatening to oppose any bipartisan filibuster reforms unless a supermajority of senators come together to fix the problem. But, there is no question that on January 3, a majority of the newly-convened Senate has the opportunity and authority to fix the filibuster. And they must do so.

The Senate’s power to change its rules by a majority vote stems directly from the constitutional mandate that each chamber will “determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” And, as history shows, when a majority of senators invoke the constitutional authority to reform the rules, doing so has led to bipartisan reform, not nuclear fallout.

In 1959, and again in 1975, the Senate lowered the threshold for ending a filibuster. In both instances, reform came only after senators demonstrated their commitment to pursuing change by a majority vote rather than a supermajority vote. As part of those reform efforts, Republican Vice Presidents Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, sitting as presidents of the Senate, confirmed the constitutional power of a majority to pass rules change on the first day of a new Congress. Dick Cheney even signaled his agreement when the Republican majority invoked its authority to impose changes in 2005.

The reforms being contemplated by the Senate are sensible and worthy of bipartisan support. Indeed, notably lost in the sparring over procedure is the fact that none of the proposals would actually eliminate the filibuster -- they would reduce the easy abuse of obstruction tactics by limiting the number of filibuster opportunities per bill and force filibustering senators to actually stay on the floor and talk.

If a majority of the Senate buys into the idea that introducing rules to reform the next Congress requires support from a minority party committed to obstruction, the opportunity for change will be lost. Both parties will only engage in serious talks about how to repair the Senate if the majority is serious about changing the rules. Our nation faces numerous challenges in the years to come. Fixing the filibuster is the first step in revitalizing Congress so it can work to overcome those challenges.