The legislative process in Washington is broken. Despite the myriad urgent problems facing our nation, our senators have chosen instead to accomplish nearly nothing. The Senate has passed a record-low 2.8 percent of its own bills. Indeed, we have had the least productive Congress in memory, and American voters are angry and disgusted.
A prime culprit for this logjam in the river of progress is the current abusive use of the filibuster. Members of the minority have used the measure or threatened to use it nearly 400 times to block even the mere discussion of bills and to prevent votes to confirm nominees to long-open governmental positions. Like a surly child, a single, unaccountable member, without even taking the floor or speaking, can demand a “silent” filibuster and force the Senate to get 60 votes (a cloture vote), obstructing both debate and voting on critical legislation that affects 315 million Americans.
At one time a filibuster meant that a senator who felt strongly about a bill would take a stand and orate to convince colleagues of the value of their argument. Cinema buffs will remember Jimmy Stewart’s heroic senatorial filibuster in the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
No more. Now all they need to do to object is to say so. Then they can go back to making fundraising phone calls. They pay no price for throwing a rod into the spokes of everyday governance, and meanwhile nothing gets done. This is wrong and it needs to be fixed.
There is a remedy that both Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King can take when the Senate votes on the rules for the new session of Congress and that is to support Senate Resolution 4, which reforms how the filibuster works. This bill would not weaken the minority party’s ability to object, but simply require that they have real reasons for the objection and that they must tell the American people what they are.
The bill would require senators who filibuster to actually keep the floor and talk. It would prevent filibustering a motion to proceed. Additionally, it would limit the number of motions needed to go to conference with the House. And it would cap post-cloture debate time on nominations at two hours.
It is important to emphasize that this resolution does not put a thumb on the scale for either party. It simply requires those who wish to filibuster to be responsible and speak out for what they believe. We would expect nothing less in our annual town meetings.
Time is of the essence. It is only at the start of the session that a newly convened Senate can change its operating rules with the support of a simple majority. It has to be done now.
This resolution to fix the filibuster deserves bipartisan support. King and Collins should co-sponsor and vote for SR-4 and give the Senate the tools to once again become a functioning democratic organization that actually serves the American people.
Greg Rossel of Troy is a boat builder, boat-building instructor and town-meeting moderator.