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Fighting the Pirates of the Senate 

The word "filibuster" derives from the Spanish noun filibustero, which means, basically, a pirate. The origin is appropriate, because for the past six years the Republican minority in the Senate has been using the filibuster to hijack the legislative process. Victims of this piracy have included, among many others, a military appropriations bill, the "Dream Act" giving legal standing to young immigrants who are in college or the military, and a bill that would have made the donors of secret political contributions public.

The filibuster isn't enshrined in the Constitution, which requires only a simple majority vote for the Senate to pass nearly all types of legislation. It arose out of the Senate custom of "extended debate," under which senators considered it rude to stop another senator from talking. The first Senate rule on the matter was passed in 1917; it provided that a two-thirds majority vote—later reduced to three-fifths—could "invoke cloture" and halt debate. Under today's rules a senator can block a bill simply by objecting to it and triggering the 60-vote "supermajority" requirement.

The result is a monumental mess. As Oregon's Sen. Jeff Merkley wrote a year ago in a Washington Post op-ed, "The difference between today and the Senate of the 1970s, when I was an intern for [Oregon] Sen. Mark Hatfield, is stark. A Senate that routinely debated amendments from both sides and decided almost all issues by simple majority is gone. Now, united minority caucuses, backed by powerful interest groups, seek to use the supermajority requirement to block action and discredit the majority. The resulting paralysis and partisanship hurt our nation."

In the last session of Congress, Merkley and fellow Democrat Tom Udall of New Mexico introduced a resolution to significantly reform Senate rules. It wouldn't have eliminated filibusters completely, but it would have made a senator who wanted to invoke the supermajority requirement produce a petition with the names of at least 10 senators objecting to the bill. And it would have compelled filibustering senators to actually hold the floor by speaking continuously, a la James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

The Merkley-Udall reform died because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to fight for it. That was a bad tactical mistake that allowed the Republican filibusteros to keep the Obama agenda bottled up for two years.

But, after the Democrats' convincing election victory, the dynamics on Capitol Hill have changed. Reid now admits he was wrong in not getting behind the Merkley-Udall reform and is signaling that he's willing to give it another shot. He should do it—and the Democrats, who need only a simple majority vote to change the rules, should pass it.

As ex-President George W. Bush said after winning a much closer election than Obama and the Democrats just did, "Elections have consequences." One consequence of last week's election should be the death of the Senate filibuster as we know it. Hopefully its death will come soon. Meanwhile, Sens. Merkley and Udall have earned the GLASS SLIPPER for continuing to fight the good fight.

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