As the clock ticked down to Opening Day in the U.S. Senate, it appeared that the chamber’s ruling denizens were poised to speedily deal in a decisive fashion with their own dysfunction, by dumping the rules that have made gridlock an American tradition.But no. Change comes oh so slowly to “the world’s most deliberative body” – indeed, over a span of more than two centuries, the “cave of winds” (a nickname since the ’30s) has altered its internal rules only seven times – so we shall see whether the ’11 Democratic majority actually manages to put an end to minority tyranny.When the Senate formally rings in the new year with today’s opening session, a number of Democrats will rise to denounce Republican exploitation of the filibuster rule, and to demand that the rules be altered to make filibusters much tougher to sustain. The lead guy will be New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, who rightly points out that the current rules “incentivize obstructionism.” In response, the Republicans will defend the filibuster and dismiss the Democratic move as a backroom power grab. You all know what a filibuster is, right? I ask only because, according to a 2010 Pew poll, most Americans apparently have no idea how it works. (No surprise there.) Basically, the filibuster is a longtime tactic – found nowhere in the Constitution – that allows a dissident Senate minority to block bills by debating those bills forever, or until a sufficient number of senators (currently, 60) agree to snuff the debate and move forward.In theory, the filibuster makes perfect sense; in the Senate, the minority’s voice is supposed to be heard. But the statistics tell the real story; there is no arguing with the empirical numbers – unless empiricism is now to be dismissed as a “liberal” concept. Put simply, Republicans since 2007 have used the filibuster on an unprecedented scale to throw sand in the gears of the Senate machinery.From the 1920s to the 1950s, the Senate averaged one filibuster a year. During the contentious 1960s, it averaged 4.6 filibusters a year. During the 1970s, it averaged 11.2 a year. During the 1990s, it averaged 36 a year. But since 2007, with the Republicans in the minority, the Senate has averaged a record 70 a year. Which is why, among other farcical outcomes, the Senate last month couldn’t even pass a budget.Actually, the No party has blocked hundreds of House-enacted bills – indeed, they have blocked even the consideration of many of those bills – not with actual filibusters, but with the mere threat of filibusters. So virtually nothing can get passed unless 60 of the 100 senators agree to break the blockage and move ahead. In other words, a supermajority. There is nary a word in the Constitution about the Senate requiring a supermajority. There is nothing in the Constitution that gives dissidents de facto veto power.How about this for a concept: Instead of allowing the minority party – regardless of whether it’s the GOP, or, in the future, the Democratic party – to obstruct by merely threatening a filibuster, reform the rules so that the obstructionists will have to stand there, on camera, and actually filibuster. Just like Jimmy Stewart had to do, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or just like Strom Thurmond did in ’57, when he talked against a civil rights bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes.
And how about this: Require that a fixed number of filibustering senators hold the floor on day one, and increase the required number for days two, three, and beyond.And how about this: Reform the rules so that a determined minority can filibuster a bill only when it’s up for final passage – as opposed to now, when the minority is allowed to block even the initial moves to debate a bill.If the Senate wants to change the rules by which it operates, it can do so on Opening Day simply by getting a majority of members to agree. Today is Opening Day, which means the Democrats can reform the filibuster with agreement from 51 of their 53 senators. Naturally, however, the Democrats are not united on what to do or how to do it. Some are reportedly worried about having their own hands tied if they are consigned to the minority after the ’12 elections. (To which I say, so what? Veto via filibuster is absurd no matter which side does it.)The other factor is that Democratic leaders reportedly prefer to negotiate a set of (watered-down) reforms with their GOP counterparts. The majority does not want to unnecessarily rile the minority, and risk fouling the Senate climate any further. Maybe they can all agree, at the very least, to get rid of the tactic by which a senator is allowed to place an anonymous “hold” on a bill or a presidential nomination.So apparently more time is needed. As a result, we’re likely to see one of those parliamentary tricks by which Opening Day is magically extended until later in the month, by which time most senators (or, at minimum, the Democratic senators) might be on the same page. What the heck, at least it’s a start. The question is, can the cave of winds truly accomodate a fresh breeze?