I have to admit I wasn’t a huge fan of Jeff Merkley when he was running for election. In fact I voted for his opponent in the primary, Portland political activist Steve Novick.
Since going to Washington, though, Merkley has become just about my favorite senator. He’s been a strong champion of health care reform, environmental protection and reining in Wall Street, among other things. And despite his mild-mannered demeanor, he hasn’t been at all shy about jabbing sacred senatorial cows with a cattle prod.
Latest example: Merkley has sent around to his colleagues a memo advocating a number of reforms to Senate rules and procedures. The most intriguing of these would make senators who want to stage a filibuster REALLY stage a filibuster, instead of faking it.
Many people get their idea of what a Senate filibuster is like from watching James Stewart in the 1939 movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But that’s a Hollywood fantasy. The way things really work in the Senate, all the minority has to do is announce that it intends to filibuster to block a vote on legislation.
Merkley wants that to change. As he explained the idea to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, he wants the senator or senators who are filibustering to actually stay on the Senate floor and keep speaking – and “if at any moment no one’s willing to speak, that ends it, and we go to the vote” on the bill.
“It’s very important for the public to know why somebody is objecting” to a piece of legislation, Merkley said. “If they say ‘A majority vote isn’t good enough and therefore I’m objecting’ … they should put themselves on record so the public can respond to that.”
True. And it also would be incredible fun to watch Mitch McConnell, John McCain and other GOP geezers trying to keep a filibuster going for hours, or even days. They’d need to stockpile a generous supply of Flomax.
FOOTNOTE: Kevin Drum on Mother Jones has a good explanation and analysis of Merkley's reform idea:
"Merkley's proposal revolves around a single principle: the Senate should always allow debate. So the filibuster should be banned entirely on motions to proceed and on amendments because both are things the promote debate and engagement. Filibusters would still be allowed on a bill's final vote, but it would take more than one senator to launch a filibuster (Merkley suggests a minimum of ten) and senators would have to actually hold the floor and talk. No longer would a single person be able to obstruct all business just by dropping a note to his party leader. ... It's a pretty good plan, and a pretty sensible one. It doesn't eliminate the filibuster, it just eliminates filibuster abuse."