Filibustering our democracy: McConnell's abuse, Reid's misstep

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis' 10-hour filibuster last week against anti-abortion legislation captivated lively crowds and live-tweeters alike by rekindling nostalgia for a lost art.

The filibuster procedure in the U.S. Senate takes advantage of the unlimited speaking time afforded to senators in order to delay passage of a bill, unless 60 members vote to invoke cloture and end the debate.

Current rules allow a senator to declare an indefinite filibuster just by spending a few seconds declaring his or her intention on the floor. Traditional filibusters, like Sen. Rand Paul's 13-hour jeremiad against drone use in March, are now rare.

The addictive reliance on what was considered a drastic measure has choked a body intentionally designed to be slow and deliberate into a state of thinly veiled, hyper-partisan gridlock, requiring a supermajority for all but the most banal legislation.

Absent necessary intervention by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, reckless abuse of the filibuster will worsen the corrosive gridlock in Congress.

The supermajority requirement for even routine procedures, a curiosity found in no other Western legislature, is imposed on a body with an already constitutionally mandated small-state bias that has only worsened.

Now, 41 senators, representing as little as 10 percent of American citizens, could effectively block all legislation and nominations from moving forward.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell has emerged as the lead crusader in the campaign to trivialize the filibuster for political gain:

"Matters of this level of controversy always require 60 votes," he nonchalantly noted one dreary December day, blocking a bill that would have ended last year's debt ceiling crisis by yielding authority to the president.

But the bill that McConnell had just filibustered should have been utterly uncontroversial to him — it was his own.

McConnell's unprecedented self-filibuster — the senatorial equivalent of punching oneself in the face — was just the most glaringly disingenuous maneuver in the recent, Republican-led spate of obstructionism in the Senate.

The number of cloture motions, a proxy for the amount of filibusters, has sharply increased during McConnell's tenure as Senate minority leader.

Since 2007, the Democratic-controlled Senate has seen an 85-percent increase in the obstructive measure, compared to the previous 10 years of Republican control.

As easy as it is for Democrats to point fingers at Republican obduracy, Democratic senators were quite fond of the procedure during the Bush administration.

Reid opted against adequate filibuster restrictions earlier this year, an unforced error that has caused his party, his president and his country considerable damage.

Reid is said to be weighing another effort at filibuster reform this summer. He should learn from the McConnell experience and restrict the use of the filibuster — and restore it to its earlier grandeur.

Before its misappropriation as a vent for petty political temper tantrums, the filibuster was admired as a defiant but principled stand, even mythologized by Hollywood in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Somehow, an unusual combination of elevated rhetoric, basic storytelling and even baser bladder control became cherished moments in congressional lore.

But this is not your father's Senate — or even your Founding Father's Senate.

In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote that "to give a minority a negative upon a majority ... is to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junta to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority."

Hamilton's predictions sadly have rung true. Expanded background checks for gun sales failed in the Senate — despite support from 90 percent of the country and a 54-46 majority — because of a minority warning of creeping governmental overreach.

But, more perniciously, the chilling threat of a filibuster stops important legislation from ever reaching the floor.

A Senate designed to avoid the tyranny of the majority has instead fallen victim to the tyranny of the minority.