Fixing the filibuster: An interview with Sen. Jeff Merkley
Jeff Merkley was elected to the United States Senate in 2008. Previously, he served as speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives.
In recent interviews, you've called the Senate a "dysfunctional" institution and argued that better outcomes will be hard to find until procedural reform is achieved. Is that conclusion primarily a product of the health-care reform debate, or does it go deeper?
This debate has been a punctuation mark on the conversations that have gone forth all year. For me, it's a couple of different pieces. One is the off-the-floor dialogues, and the segregation in the Senate. Specifically, I'm referring to the fact that with folks heading home most weekends, senators and their families don't know each other. We spend most of the week surrounded by our caucus mates. In state legislatures, you sit where you want on the floor, according to seniority, and you often sit near Republicans. Some states set them up so Democrats and Republicans alternate.
I'm always a bit skeptical of that explanation. After all, Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley sit next to each other in committee and are dear friends. They've known one another for decades. But when it came down to it, they couldn't work together of health-care reform. It seems that the incentives are powerful enough to pit even trusted colleagues against one another, no matter the quality of the personal relationships.
The saying is that we've got the world's greatest deliberative body, but the rules that were crafted to ensure deliberation have resulted in the obstruction of deliberation. Specifically, I'm the idea that it should be very difficult to close debate so every member has full opportunity to make their thoughts known before the chamber makes its decision has become, in practice, a procedural hurdle to make it difficult for any bill to move forward to a final vote. The fact that it applies to a motion to proceed, amendments, and passage, makes it possible to tie up the floor on anything for a week or two weeks.
Implicit in that point is that the power of the filibuster isn't simply that it forces a higher vote threshold, but that even 60 united senators find their work substantially delayed, right?
When you understand the amount of ordinary business, the nominations and appropriations, that have to go through the floor, you realize the minority can make the chamber totally dysfunctional. And add on top of all that, that what's supposed to be happening, which is that the minority gets to make its point to the majority, isn't what happens in practice. When people are speaking on C-SPAN, they're often speaking to an empty chamber.
But the filibuster isn't just used to lengthen debate. It's also used to prevent debate. There were filibusters, for instance, on the motions to move to debate and amend the Senate health bill and the package of manager's amendments, not just on the efforts to close debate and vote on those bills.
Very much so. When you use the word filibuster, most of us in America, and I count myself among them, envision it as the ability to hold the floor on rare occasions to speak at length and make your point emphatically and even delay progress by taking hours. But it's not a filibuster anymore. It's a supermajority to proceed requirement. Proceeding to a vote or to a measure. When that becomes commonly used, its a recipe for paralysis.
Is there reason to believe the filibuster is worse now than it's been in the past? Or are Democrats simply upset because they're in the majority?
My understanding, from those who've looked at the statistics, is that this is by far the worst its ever been. There's a number that Sen. Stabenow's team has put together of the number of times proceeding has been objected to, which is near 90 at this point. it's way in excess of any previous year.
It's been reported that you're meeting with other senators to come up with reforms to the Senate rules. What would those look like?
Discussions are really at the starting point. To give you a sense of some of the ideas, though, one question we're asking is how do you get two-thirds of the body to agree to change the rules when there's immediate pressure for the minority to protect themselves? Your rule changes could kick in in 6 to 8 years. Or you could have rule changes that are designed to trigger when the two sides are more or less even. So when there's a 55-45 majority, it wouldn't kick in, but it would at 52-48. Or think about with nominations. We're really paralyzing the executive branch. This may be a conversation that doesn't ripen for awhile, but each time I mention to a senator that we're doing this, they say thank goodness.
Has there been any interest from your Republican colleagues?
I don't know yet. Until we have some substantive ideas, I haven't started conversations on the minority side. But my guess is there will be.
Photo credit: Official gallery; www.Merkley.Senate.gov
December 26, 2009; 12:29 PM ET
Categories: Interviews , Senate
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