If Congress is ever going to cross its mind-numbing partisan divide, the Senate must change rules that have allowed abusive stall tactics to undermine meaningful legislation and left Americans wondering if anything will ever get done in Washington.
In the last six years, Republicans have used the parliamentary procedure called a filibuster almost 400 times to hobble legislation. That is about twice as many times as the tactic to prevent a vote was invoked in the previous six years. Republicans have even filibustered simple procedural motions to discuss or amend a bill.
Because of the filibuster, the Dream Act, which would have created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who were brought here as children by their parents, didn't budge. The Disclose Act, which would have required secret campaign contributors to come out of the dark, died. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have made it easier for women to fight discriminatory wages, was swamped.
Meanwhile, abuse of another parliamentary maneuver, the "silent hold," has blocked judicial nominations and made a backlog in the federal courts worse.
President Obama became so frustrated with such tactics that he used a loophole to make recess appointments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board in January.
The delay-and-kill tactics are especially unseemly when you consider that the senator calling for a filibuster or a hold doesn't have to reveal himself. Just the threat of a filibuster can kill a measure if its sponsors don't have the votes to end debate once it starts. Yet, without debate, the merits of a bill or a nomination aren't heard.
Reformers have rightly suggested ending the anonymous nature of these tactics. They want senators to file a filibuster petition, and actually speak on the Senate floor to keep a filibuster going. Holds would no longer be made in secret. These refreshing changes would end the mysteries about who is blocking what, and that would make senators think twice about throwing nails on the road.
Under all circumstances, of course, the minority party's right to speak in opposition must be preserved. Its members must be able to publicly explain what they see as flawed in bills or administration appointments. But the minority party shouldn't be allowed to use the filibuster or other legislative tactics to act as if it has won the right to be in control.
That's not the message from voters. Senate control shifted slightly in the Nov. 6 election - going from 51 Democrats and 47 Republicans, to 53 Democrats and 45 Republicans. Two independents caucus with the Democrats. That means neither party has the supermajority of 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.
Requiring 60 votes to get legislation past a filibuster gives the minority party far more power than voters awarded it. The rule is a disservice to whichever party happens to be in the majority, so both Democrats and Republicans should want to change it.
Give the minority sufficient time to make its points in debate, but don't allow abuse of that privilege to thwart an up-or-down vote.