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Sen. Tom Harkin Headshot

Fixing the Filibuster

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After the recent blizzard, a newspaper columnist noted that Washington had been "immobilized by snow." "This is highly unusual," she quipped. "Normally, Washington is immobilized by Senators."

It's a funny line. But the unprecedented abuse of the filibuster by Republicans is no joke.

When many people think of the filibuster, it brings to mind the classic 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But Senator Smith -- Jimmy Stewart's character -- was a little guy using the filibuster to stop the special interests. Today, that has been turned upside-down. It is the special interests using the filibuster to stop legislation that would benefit the little guy.

Among other bills, Republicans have filibustered legislation to provide low-income energy assistance; efforts to strengthen the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ensure our children are not exposed to unsafe toys; and efforts to ensure that women are guaranteed equal pay for equal work.

The problem is not only that Republicans are using the filibuster to kill good bills that would help working Americans. The larger problem is that the Republicans' indiscriminate use of the filibuster has made it all but impossible to conduct everyday business in the Senate. On an almost daily basis, the Republican minority -- just 41 Senators -- stops bills from even coming to the floor for debate and amendment.

In the 1950s, an average of one bill was filibustered in each two-year Congress. In the last Congress, 139 bills were filibustered. The Republican abuse of the filibuster is unprecedented, routine, and increasingly reckless.

Just last week, a Republican Senator blocked the nomination of every single executive branch nominee -- 70 in all. This isn't about reasoned opposition. It is about systematic, indiscriminate obstruction of the majority's ability to conduct even routine, non-controversial business.

The Senate cannot continue down this path of obstruction, paralysis, and de facto minority rule. That is why I have introduced a bill to change the Standing Rules of the Senate to reform the cloture procedure in the United States Senate.

Currently, it takes 60 votes in the Senate to "invoke cloture" -- in other words, to end debate on a legislative measure and bring it to a vote. My legislation would permit a decreasing number of Senators to invoke cloture on a given measure. On the first cloture attempt, 60 votes would be required. But, over a period of days or weeks, the number of votes required would fall to a simple majority of 51 Senators.

I want to emphasize that I am offering this bill with clean hands. I introduced the exact same bill in 1995, when Democrats were in the minority in the Senate. So this legislation is not about one party or the other gaining advantage. It is about the Senate, as an institution, operating more fairly, effectively, and small-d democratically.

It takes 67 votes to change the Senate rules -- which, I acknowledge, is a tall order. But, by introducing this bill, I want to shine a spotlight on the egregious abuse of the filibuster, and how that abuse is paralyzing our democracy and making a mockery of the concept of majority rule.

I do not see how we can effectively govern a 21st century superpower when a minority of just 41 Senators can dictate action -- or chronic inaction - not just to a majority of Senators, but to a majority of the American people. It is time to fix the filibuster, and make our nation governable, once again.