Confined to bed and forced to watch television coverage of the Senate for a week, an American citizen wouldn’t see anything resembling the old School House Rock cartoon about “How a Bill Becomes a Law.”
Committees don’t draft careful legislation after weeks of deliberation. Senators don’t debate the pros and cons of that legislation on the floor. Instead, we cram everything we can into overstuffed budget bills passed at the stroke of midnight to keep the government’s lights on.
Today, more than half of young Americans believe our democracy is “failing” or “in trouble.” One think tank recently labeled America a “backsliding democracy.” The Senate does not bear all of the blame, but it deserves a lot.
The Founders wanted the Senate to make its decisions after careful consideration and debate. Now the Senate never debates and almost never decides.
That’s because current Senate rules, commonly mis-described as the filibuster, require a supermajority of 60 votes to advance legislation to a final vote. These rules, which exist nowhere in the Constitution, empower 41 senators, who often represent as little as 24% of Americans, to block debate and decisions about broadly supported legislation — from voting rights to gun safety.
Until this century, senators rarely used the 60-vote threshold to pass legislation, and almost always to block civil rights and enforce segregation. Now, members invoke it daily, forcing both parties to jam their priorities through “reconciliation,” a mutant parliamentary workaround that allows certain budget-related bills to pass with a simple majority.
The result is a crisis of American democracy: the majority cannot govern, which means the nation cannot act. Our sclerosis discredits our system of self-government at the very moment authoritarian governments like Russia and China argue that democracy cannot meet the challenges of the 21st century.
For our democracy to compete, we have to restore the Senate. And there’s no way to do that without reforming rules that a minority of craven lawmakers are abusing to grind the body to a standstill.
Let’s be more specific about what needs to happen:
- Flip the burden of delay by making the minority party produce 41 votes to continue debate, instead of requiring the majority to produce 60 votes to end it;
- Guarantee a real voice for the minority party by ensuring votes on a minimum number of amendments for both sides whenever legislation is brought to the floor;
- Require those who continue debate to actually hold the floor and talk, like Mr. Smith goes to Washington, instead of phoning it in from their office as they do today; and
- Once both parties have made their case on the floor and had votes on their amendments, the Senate must be able to pass legislation with 51 votes.
I know that Republicans and their allies in the conservative media will argue that the filibuster is a vital part of American politics and that any change would be nothing more than a partisan power grab.
But let’s be clear: this isn’t the first time that the Senate has impeded American progress, and it wouldn’t be the first time that Senate rules have changed in response.
Before the Civil War, the Senate sheltered the minority interests of slave holders. After the war, it enabled monopolists, robber barons, and isolationists to profit from the misery of the conflict and its aftermath.
Each time, crises forced the Senate to fundamentally change how it went about its business. And each change led to meaningful progress, including clearing the way for the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments to emancipate and enfranchise former slaves, sweeping anti-trust reforms, and long-delayed legislation to protect civil rights.
The bottom line is that Senate rules are not suspended in amber; they can and have changed with the times. No one knew this better than the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. More than once, Byrd reformed the Senate to better serve the nation. In 1975, he even led the effort to reduce the votes required to end debate and proceed to a final vote from 67 to 60, where it stands today.
As we consider reforms, we should reject the choice between making the Senate more like the House, where the majority runs roughshod over the minority, or accepting the procedural straightjacket of our own design. If we change the rules, we should also be prepared to live under them whether we are in the majority or not.
Our goal is not to secure an immediate partisan advantage. It is to make the Senate work again and refire the engine of American democracy — for our nation, and for the world.
Michael Bennet represents Colorado in the U.S. Senate
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