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Filibuster reform can't wait

Two months after American voters made it clear they want effective government — and two years before the U.S. Senate's next opportunity to reform its broken rules — that "do nothing" chamber appears poised to fix its filibuster. In its present warped form, it permits a single, unaccountable member, without even taking the floor or speaking, to obstruct both debate and voting on critical legislation affecting 315 million Americans.

That's why it's essential for Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin to join with as many of their colleagues as possible in support of Senate Resolution 4, which would authorize the following reforms:

•require senators who filibuster to actually keep the floor and talk;

•prevent filibustering a motion to proceed;

•limit the number of motions needed to go to conference with the House;

•cap post-cloture debate time on nominations at two hours.

A recent Baltimore Sun editorial observes that the filibuster "is too easy to wield and has been used by both sides to bludgeon the democratic process." It also rightly discounts the fear of some Democrats that reforming the rules now will somehow disadvantage them if Republicans regain control of the Senate. But that concern has traction only on the low road of short-sighted political manipulation, not the high road of democratic principles and civic responsibility.

What most media rarely address are the real and tangible costs of the current "tyranny of the minority" borne by families, youths, seniors and veterans across our state and nation every day. Whether the inaction is on the economy and deficit, jobs and business opportunity, infrastructure and the environment, or education and health care, our present and future hang precariously in the balance.

In recent years, the Senate minority has derailed a number of progressive bills passed by the House. They include energy and climate legislation, the DREAM Act, which got 55 votes in the Senate, and the Employee Free Choice Act, which had 59 Senate supporters. Last July, Republican filibusters killed both the Bring Jobs Home Act, which would have provided tax incentives to companies that bring jobs back to the United States, and the DISCLOSE Act, which would have increased transparency over independent groups' campaign spending — despite its support by a bipartisan majority.

While we may not see the faces of senators anonymously abusing today's filibuster, we can put faces on their victims: women unfairly making less than their male peers; workers denied union membership and protections that build the middle class; deserving undocumented youth denied a shot at citizenship and affordable education; and all of us who suffer the consequences of powerful corporate interests and the wealthiest dominating our politics and politicians.

Also victimized by filibuster abuse are the president and those he nominates to the judiciary, his cabinet and other posts, whose requisite Senate approval increasingly is delayed or derailed, adding to the disgraceful backlog of our courts and leaderless agencies unable to fulfill their public missions.

As "Master of the Senate" during the post-war boom years, Lyndon B. Johnson faced only one filibuster. The current Majority Leader, Harry Reid, has faced 386 to date. No wonder Mr. Reid embraces the four key reforms in Senate Resolution 4.

Senators Cardin and Mikulski should not only co-sponsor SR-4 but devote their best efforts to ensure it passes when voted on this week.

Kate Planco Waybright (kate@progressivemaryland.org) is interim executive director of Progressive Maryland. Elbridge James (elbridgej@gmail.com) is the organization's board president.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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