Ending Congressional Gridlock Requires Curbing Abuse of the Filibuster

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 31: The U.S. Capitol illuminates at dusk on Capitol Hill on December 31, 2012 in Washington, DC. Th
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 31: The U.S. Capitol illuminates at dusk on Capitol Hill on December 31, 2012 in Washington, DC. The House and Senate are both still in session on New Year's Eve to try to deal with the looming 'fiscal cliff' issue. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Jefferson Smith, the fictional filibustering senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, has captivated the imaginations of many Americans. But when was the last time a senator took a principled stand in the form of an around-the-clock speech, then collapsed with exhaustion, having convinced the crooked political establishment to mend its misguided ways?

Now is the time to stop looking to a 73-year-old Hollywood movie for inspiration and start fixing the way the Senate does business so that a latter-day Mr. Smith can actually take a stand for genuine matters of principle. There's growing momentum to end legislative obstruction by changing the rules when the new Senate reconvenes later this month. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) have introduced Senate Resolutions 4 and 6, which mirror the filibuster reforms supported by Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of 50 progressive organizations. And Democrats have the votes to revamp the rules.

If the country is to have any hope of solving our nation's problems, the reformers must succeed. Contrary to the claims of opponents, the reforms would not kill the filibuster. Under this plan there still is room for Mr. Smith. Rather, this plan curbs the misuse and abuse of the filibuster in four key ways.

First, it ends the silent filibuster. Senators wishing to filibuster would have to actually hold the floor and defend their position. Today, senators who want to filibuster can literally "phone it in." They can pick up the phone or send an email to announce that they are engaging in a "filibuster," or simply threatening to do so, and then leave work for the day. With zero time or energy actually expended killing important legislation -- such as fighting gender discrimination in the workplace, closing Big Oil's tax loopholes or giving the children of undocumented immigrants a chance through the DREAM Act -- it's no wonder that an obstructionist minority strikes down anything and everything it doesn't like.

Second, it removes obstacles to debate. The Senate should allow a filibuster only on the bill itself and not on the motions necessary to get a bill to the floor.

Third, instead of requiring the majority to find 60 votes to end a filibuster, the minority would have to produce 41 to keep it going.

Fourth, it would reduce the number of hours of debate before a final vote on nominees for judgeships or executive offices. The Senate minority has given new meaning to the term "obstruction of justice" by filibustering one judicial nominee after another, forcing up to 30 hours of floor time to be squandered even after a supermajority finally breaks a filibuster. At that rate there just aren't enough hours in a president's term to confirm all his nominees. Just the threat of this kind of obstruction can derail a nomination that has broad bipartisan support.

Congress has a constitutional right to make its own rules on the first legislative day of a new session. That means that, on that first day, the Senate can implement these reforms with the support of a simple majority, or 51 votes. Because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recessed the Senate instead of adjourning it, it's still legislative day one.

The $6-billion November election returned Barack Obama to the White House and ushered in a number of new moderate and progressive voices into the Senate. Why should this expensive, hard-fought victory be deliberately surrendered to a minority led by Mitch McConnell, a man facing a probable challenge from his far right in two years? Most voters who thought they were voting for the president's agenda will be surprised to find the country's policies and problems captive to the politics of a primary race in Kentucky.

To be sure, finding Republicans to support even modest rules changes will be difficult, but we also know that there are some Democrats who have expressed reservations. They worry about interfering with the Senate's traditions and what might happen the next time they are in the minority. But the path we are on is utterly unsustainable. Never-ending dysfunction is not an option. And the blunt truth is that Republicans can change the rules on the first day they're in charge, whether Democrats do anything now or not.

Without reform, we're doomed repeat and amplify the exasperating gridlock of the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling talks. That's why Senate Resolutions 4 and 6 need the support of Democratic senators and the White House. Recent polling shows that the American people strongly support overhauling the filibuster. We hope that they will ask their senators to cosponsor Merkley and Udall's reform packages.

The rules have to change, and now, or those who oppose those reforms will have to own the consequences. And the consequences won't be pretty.

Nan Aron is president of the Alliance for Justice. Larry Cohen is president of the Communications Workers of America.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read the companion article by HuffPost's Sam Stein, click here. To read the companion blog post by Sarah Binder of the George Washington University, click here. To read all the other posts in the series, click here.