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We Need Senate Rules Reform

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For several years now, Communications Workers of America has been working with Fix the Senate Now, a broad coalition of democracy, community, women, faith-based and civil rights groups that are fed up with a Senate that functions more like Cicero's Senate of ancient Rome than a 21st century democracy. Despite being considered the world's model deliberative body, in reality it's a place where little gets done because of the abuse of the Senate rules. This isn't news.

But there is a one-day opportunity on the first day of a new Congress when senators can adopt new rules by a majority vote, as provided by the Constitution. It's called the "constitutional option."

Two years ago, our coalition hit the airwaves, spawned 40,000 supportive calls to Senate offices and gathered more than 100,000 signatures on a petition in favor of such a change. Unfortunately, the resulting "gentlemen's agreement" of reforms did nothing to curb the rampant obstructionism in the Senate.

But Fix the Senate Now hasn't stopped fighting to end the gridlock.

On Dec. 19, the coalition is launching a nationwide call-in to Senate offices to tell our lawmakers we need real change. In particular we are demanding that the minority must talk if they want to block a vote, instead of putting the burden on the majority to find 60 supporters just to start debate. Furthermore, executive and judicial nominations must be put to a vote following limited debate. It is absurd that after a two-year, $3 billion presidential election, presidential appointments can simply be blocked in the cloak room with no discussion.

Filibustering by the minority will still be possible, but those senators should be required to rustle up 40 supportive colleagues, so that lawmakers holding up the debate actually prove they have the votes. Our coalition also believes filibustering senators should actually hold the floor and speak on the subject. The American people are entitled to a debate, especially on issues that have majority support.

Without reform, we've witnessed 386 silent filibusters during Sen. Harry Reid's six years as majority leader. Lyndon B. Johnson served six years as Senate majority leader with one filibuster.

In the past six years, a number of critical bills suffered silent deaths. Lacking 60 votes, the DISCLOSE Act, which would have increased transparency for independent groups' campaign spending, died without discussion. Senate Republicans blocked the Bring Jobs Home Act, an insourcing bill that would have ended tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. A minority of senators also prevented debate on the Veterans Jobs Corp Act, which would have created new job-training programs in targeted fields like conservation and firefighting. The DREAM Act was blocked despite overwhelming popular and Senate support for the children of immigrants. The Employee Free Choice Act and climate change legislation both came very close to 60 votes, but fell short. These and too many other critical issues couldn't get even a minute of debate on the Senate floor.

On Jan. 3, that small window of opportunity to exercise the constitutional option will again open. Our democracy can't afford to wait another two years. We have by far the most expensive Senate campaigns ever, with the 2012 election spending approaching $743 million. Yet only weeks later we could again could be facing a Senate that does practically nothing that Americans voted for and debates few issues of the day. Our democracy is in real trouble unless we act now to force the issue into the open and mobilize millions to demand change.