Senators should pick their battles
Obstruction always has been one of the goals of the Senate filibuster - often but not always to bad effect. It has been used to slow the march to war but also to slow the march to broad civil rights.
For most of its history as a tactic in the Senate, the filibuster was used only in extraordinary circumstances because it required great effort and entailed political risk.
Now, it is a routine, risk-free, gratuitous instrument of obstruction that creates the prospect of minority rule rather than the assurance that the minority will be heard. It's time for reform.
The filibuster flows from the Senate tradition of allowing senators to speak as long as they choose. Thus, some senators have engaged in legendary filibuster sessions, holding the floor to prevent votes on bills they want to stop. Sen. Huey Long spoke for 15 hours in 1932 in opposition to some of FDR's New Deal legislation. He read into the record recipes for fried oysters and other Louisiana delicacies, before an inevitable trip to the men's room did in the effort.
Now, however, the rules do not even require a trip to the floor to invoke a filibuster, making it a routine instrument of obstruction rather than an extraordinary device.
Filibusters routinely are invoked on "motions to proceed," by which the Senate would begin the debate process. Rather than actually starting a filibuster, the obstructing party submits a "cloture petition," requiring 60 votes to stop a filibuster.
According to the Senate Historian's Office, Democrats filed 68 cloture petitions during the 2005-2006 session of Congress, the last time they were in the minority. Since then Republicans have filed more than 100 such petitions in each two-year session, including 139 in the 2007-2008 session.
The Senate should stop mocking the public's business and alter the rule to require those seeking a filibuster to conduct one, while leaving the Senate free to conduct other business. That way the minority party could obstruct some but not all business and would have to establish priorities.
The growth of the Senate majority due to the recent election demonstrates that Americans are weary of obstruction. Senators should be forced to pick their fights.