In an Op-ed today, two professors explain how the “virtual” filibuster – the practice of achieving the goals of a filibuster merely by threatening one – actually works. The Majority Leader has the power under current Senate practice to change the subject. He can’t stop debate on a bill, but he can switch debate to something else, so that the filibuster “continues” but the Senate is not tied up by the actual debate. Thus, what has come to be termed a “hold” – a single senator’s ability to stop any piece of legislation – is actually a filibuster going on “in the background,” while the Senate goes on with other business.
Anyway, these two profs want the Senate to renounce the so-called “tracking” system that allows business to go forward while a filibuster continues. They are, of course, a bit late to the party, but they are welcome to join Gail Collins and me in the campaign.
The tracking system is an excellent example of careless wishing. Robert Byrd instituted it to keep Republican filibusters of Civil Rights legislation from stopping the Senate. It certainly must have seemed like a good idea at the time to keep the Senate moving while the filibuster held up only one bill, but it turns out that being responsible for tying up the Senate was the only political disincentive to filibustering. The tracking system switches the onus of shutting down the Senate from the filibusterer to the Majority Leader, who has the power to keep moving while the filibuster continues. The additional power given to the Majority Leader is in effect the power to be to blame if the Senate bogs down. That power and responsibility must be returned to the filibusterer. The weapon must do enough collateral damage to make senators unwilling to deploy it on a whim.
The frequency and intensity of public calls for restoring the filibuster’s messiness is encouraging. Maybe this country is governable after all.