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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;

By Ezra Klein  |  December 26, 2009; 12:29 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews , Senate  
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I doubt that republicans would negotiate on limiting/eliminating the filibuster in good faith since it nearly always benefits them in practice.

With the modern republican party's ideological homogeneity and strict enforcement mechanisms, keeping the caucus together to block Democrats from governing is fairly simple. When republicans are pushing legislation, the nearly incoherently broad Democratic ideological umbrella and non-existent discipline mechanisms make it equally simple to peel off a sizable handful of Dem votes to pass most republican legislation.
So, we have a one-sided setup with the filibuster where only republicans can govern with any success. That, and since proving that "government doesn't work" is a core pillar of the republican ideology, there's really not much downside to rendering the country ungovernable when it's in their interest.

Given that, why would any of this motion to eliminate/limit the filibuster realistically get any support from republicans aside from as a delaying tactic to prevent Dems from invoking the 'nuclear option'?

Posted by: CaffinatedOne | December 26, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

w. h. communications office memo to liberal bloggers, commentators meme of the month: senate is dysfunctional. Klein is doing the heavy lifting here folks, with, yowza! four posts today attacking the democratic institution of the senate. While some might say a punk half educated kid barely out of highschool has no place thinking he can "fix" the work products of our genius founders, in which they sought to create a body that would slow down major legislation and put it through great scrutiny -- well we say, invite to superbowl at the white house! Other meme, and more people need to pick up on this I'm lookin' at you firedoglake: other countries will "run rings around us." This used to be said by Mao and was suggested by departed yenta Anita Dunn. Just don't be stupid about its PROVENANCE, like she was. DF

Posted by: truck1 | December 26, 2009 4:08 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me the bigger problem is those Democrats that indicate every tax on upper income earners is a non-starter, then relish in taxing the health benefits of middle class workers, increasing the premiums for middle class seniors, and making it harder for every middle class taxpayer to deduct out of pocket expenses.

Without these Democrat middle class "haters" the filibuster wouldn't be a problem.

Posted by: cautious | December 26, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

The Senate can change the rules the same way the House changed it's filibuster rules, the chair rules them out of order. It doesn't take 2/3 of anything, it takes a simple majority to uphold a chair with gumption.

The House used to have the same filibuster problems and ended them with the Reed Rules in 1889. They didn't figure out how to convince the obstructing minority how to better proceed, they said 'this is stupid', changed the rules, and got to the business of governing. The rules are about facilitating governing, not tradition.

Posted by: jamusco | December 26, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Ezra great series of interviews and great insight to look beyond the symptoms and look into what the illness is...beyond Republican nihilism that is.

Posted by: hughmaine | December 26, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

When the minority party was presented with the opportunity to assist in the overhaul of the Social Security system during the Bush term they declined and instead resorted to obstructionism. The left (I am sure Ezra was part of this crowd) cheered the minority for blocking what they thought was a bad policy. They offered no alternative and, in effect, stuck future generations with a Social Security system that is going broke at an alarming rate.

Now the left is bewildered by the GOP attempts to block what they believe to be bad policy concerning health insurance overhaul. Many on the left agree that the legislation about to pass a Democrat congress holding the largest majority in decades is bad policy. Instead of holding the minority party in high esteem for blocking this agreed on bad legislation they want to make it even easier for the Dems to pass future bad legislation.

No wonder that polls show the generic vote going GOP for the first time in years. Of course the left just attributes that to Americans being ignorant of complex issues, like health insurance reform. Amazing that the same Americans that were so smart as to elect Obama president just a little over a year ago are now so stupid as to fall for the GOP "lies".

Maybe the public has it right when poll after poll shows they do not support the legislation the Dems are pushing through and the GOP is trying to block.

Posted by: manapp99 | December 26, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

manapp99 - Congressional Republicans never introduced legislation to back Bush's Social Security plans. Don't blame Democrats for obstructing a bill that never existed. Credit Congressional Republicans for not committing electoral suicide by being stupid enough to back Bush's unpopular giveaway in writing.

Posted by: jamusco | December 26, 2009 7:43 PM | Report abuse

Democrats must lead by example, and NOT blindly follow a "party line."

Merkley's constituents, including myself, are progressive and liberal and want representatives of our opinion in Congress.

Senators either faithfully represent the wishes of their voters, or they are not performing their proper roles as representatives.

They become advocates of a compromised whole.

Posted by: forestbloggod | December 26, 2009 8:40 PM | Report abuse

Thank you so much for this series, Ezra. You're performing a crucial public service.

Posted by: SamPenrose | December 27, 2009 12:46 AM | Report abuse

I guess Ezra doesn't really care about interviewing a Republican to get their side of the story. I mean who cares about getting both sides when you can just keep interviewing Democrats who are guaranteed to share his partisan views.

See you on Olbermann, Ezra. That's the right forum for your partisan spin.

Posted by: bobmoses | December 27, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

This is just to remind those thinking about this issue that there have been significant changes over time in the rules and procedures relating to cloture. Reversing the 1975 change that requires 3/5 of sworn Senators, instead of 2/3 of those present and voting, would be a useful step forward, since it would require that the minority have its caucus present to fight a bill, making what amounts to an attrition fight easier. And not permitting tracking would increase the cost of a filibuster by stopping all Senate business while it is pending. These changes would restore former practice and preserve but limit the filibuster.

Posted by: TCDrusus | December 27, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Can you imagine the Palin administration and a GOP controlled congress without a filibuster? No thanks. Keep the filibuster.

Posted by: Lomillialor | December 27, 2009 10:47 PM | Report abuse

ALERT! I've been saying this for over a month, and now it is the top story on drudge. There is something terribly wrong with Baucus' speech. There's a video of him ranting. He sounds just unbelievable. You have to watch it to believe it. More frightening is that no democrat or republican has dared to ask him to get a check up. He remains the power that he is. My view is that this is NOT drunkenness, as speculated on Drudge, but a more serious health issue. He sounds slightly demented.

Posted by: truck1 | December 28, 2009 8:16 AM | Report abuse

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