An old friend of mine who served in the House of Representatives for 20 years likes to tell the story of a bitter floor fight that took place over an important piece of legislation. When a more senior Democrat heard a freshman member describing Republicans as "the enemy," he admonished the younger man: "Never call Republicans the enemy. They are the opposition. It's the Senate that is the enemy."
He should see it now. The United States Senate -- known as "the world's greatest deliberative body" when I had a summer job there almost 60 years ago -- is now a carbuncle on the body politic. A charnel house where legislation putrefies. And where grown men and women are zombified by a process no respectable witch doctor would emulate for fear of a malpractice suit.
It could be otherwise -- the Senate could return from the dead -- if they restored the filibuster to its original use. When I was a young man working there, a filibuster meant you had to take the floor and keep talking. You could do so as a solo performer, delivering yourself an extended and exhausting soliloquy, or you could be one of a clique of partisans talking at length and then turning the floor over to an ally, the way relay runners pass the baton. Either way, the speaker had to stay upright in the Chamber, where he could be both seen and heard.
No more. The rules began to change in 1975 and nowadays Senators don't even have to show up to take part in a filibuster. They can call the cloak room off the Senate floor and "object" to a vote to end whatever's happening on the floor -- or about to happen. That makes it possible for a minority of the 100 members to bring the Senate to its knees, without leaving fingerprints on the knife plunged into the gut of our democracy.
That's just what the Republicans have been doing. Since they lost the majority in the Senate in 2007, they have mounted or threatened to mount nearly 400 filibusters, blocking everything from equal pay for equal work and bills to create jobs to immigration reform and judicial appointments -- so many judicial appointments that there are more vacancies on the federal courts today than when President Obama first took office.
But hold on: When Democrats were in the minority and threatening to filibuster against George W. Bush's judicial nominees, their leader Harry Reid looked favorably on this parliamentary weapon he would now take away from the Republicans.
That's the way it goes: when a party's in the majority it wants to change the filibuster until it falls from power and winds up the minority. Then the shoe's on the other foot. Such hypocrisy has cost Congress its standing in public respect and cost democracy the capacity to address the problems that threaten to overwhelm us. A banana republic does a better job at governing.
There's a way to right the ship. Change the filibuster rules. And that's what a coalition of progressive organizations known as the Democracy Initiative wants to do. They would end the silent filibuster by requiring Senators to take to the floor and actually talk so that we, the people, can see who they are and hear what they say. No tomfoolery out of sight and therefore unaccountable. And they could do these things without taking away the minority's rights. Call it fair play for everyone -- for Democrats and Republicans -- because chances are, today's majority is tomorrow's minority and vice versa.
But time's running out. Unless the Senate reforms the filibuster at the beginning of the new 113th Congress -- that's as soon as next Tuesday, January 22 -- the minority wrecking crew remains in charge. You can find out more at BillMoyers.com, including fours ways to to make your opinion loud and clear.
End the silence. Speak up now. But do it quickly, because the clock's ticking.
This week's Moyers & Company features an in-depth conversation with labor leader Larry Cohen about the silent filibuster and the need for filibuster reform. Check your local listings for times and channels.