Make them filibuster!

U.S. senators should have to work for their 60-vote threshold

How is it that one man, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, can eliminate any form of public option from the Senate health-insurance reform package? Easy: It’s because a goofy and anti-democratic Senate procedure allows him to do so.

As our colleague Dennis Myers reveals in a fascinating article in the Nov. 26 Reno News & Review, the Senate has effectively ceded majority rule and replaced it with a virtually automatic three-fifths (60-vote) supermajority requirement on any contentious bill.

Historically, Myers writes, filibusters have been rarely used. They’re too much work—someone has to keep speaking day and night to maintain them. Even in the heyday of their use, by Southern senators opposed to civil-rights legislation in the 1960s, they never exceeded a single-digit number in any year.

Lately, though, every controversial bill seems to require 60 votes. That’s because in 1975 party leaders, in order to avoid filibusters and keep the floor clear for other business, agreed that if senators merely threatened to filibuster, the body would automatically impose a 60-vote limit on cutting off debate.

In other words, nobody would need to talk 24/7 to keep debate going and forestall a vote, but if they merely said they were going to do so, 60 votes would be needed to pass the legislation.

This is the so-called “imaginary filibuster,” and both parties have made increasing use of it. Since January 2007, 144 cloture votes have been needed to cut off filibusters that never happened. It sounds crazy, we know, but that’s the way “the world’s greatest deliberative body” works.

And that’s why Lieberman had so much power. He was the Democrats’ 60th vote. And because he didn’t like the public option and the Medicare expansion, he wouldn’t support the package.

It’s time to do one of two things: Either get rid of the filibuster altogether (it’s a Senate rule, not a constitutional one) or use it the way it was intended. Bring in the cots, strap urinals to the legs (it’s happened), and make ’em work for their 60-vote threshold.