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Wyden and Merkley Fought the Good Fight 

The United States Senate has been called America's most exclusive club. Like many old and exclusive clubs, it has developed a lot of quirky rules and procedures over the centuries. Some are just peculiar; others seriously undermine the democratic process.

Over the past year, Oregon's two senators have led determined fights to change two of the worst, most antiquated, most anti-democratic Senate rules. One of them won and the other lost. But both senators deserve props for giving it their best shot.

The senator who won his reform battle was Ron Wyden. His target was the "secret hold," a sneaky and sleazy practice through which any senator could block action on any legislation for any reason, or no reason - and without even revealing that he or she was the one doing it.

The secret hold sounds like something out of the court of Louis XIV, or maybe the Kremlin of Joseph Stalin; unbelievably, it took Wyden 10 years to get it abolished - an indication of what a Sisyphean task it is to achieve even the most obvious, common-sense reforms of Senate procedure. But Wyden - with the bipartisan help of other senators, especially Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa - kept pushing that rock up the hill, and finally last week he made it over the top when the Senate voted 92-4 to abolish the secret hold.

Under the Wyden-Grassley reform, a senator placing a hold will have to be identified in The Congressional Record within two legislative days. It's still ridiculous that one senator can logjam the whole legislative process, but at least now he can't do it anonymously. As Wyden put it, "the special interests cannot secretly block important legislation or nominations by finding one senator willing to covertly upend legislation they don't like."

Jeff Merkley took on a bigger target: the Senate filibuster. The way things work now all a senator has to do is announce he intends to filibuster, and unless at least 60 senators signal they're willing to stop debate - to vote for "cloture," in Senate parlance - the bill or nomination is effectively dead.

Merkley wanted to change that to require senators to actually filibuster - to get up on their hind legs in the Senate and hold the floor. That was too big a dose of reform for the Senate to swallow; Merkley's proposal failed, getting just 46 votes - far short of the two-thirds majority it needed. But Merkley says he's not done fighting yet: "We now have 46 senators on record supporting making the filibuster real. We will build on that support in the future to restore deliberation to this chamber."

Reforming the way things are done in Washington is always a process of taking two steps forward and one step back - and for the past 10 years or so it's seemed more like one step forward and five back. The important thing is to hang in there and keep swinging. So although Merkley didn't win his battle, he and Wyden both have won our thanks - and the GLASS SLIPPER - for fighting the good fight.


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