On Wednesday January 5, 2011, a new Congress will be sworn in. As it begins to conduct its business, the US Senate needs a simple majority – 51 votes – to set its rules. Though the principle of ‘majority rule’ is a foundation of our democratic process, in recent years a small minority of Senators have invoked their right to filibuster nearly every piece of legislation in the Senate, preventing the Senate from passing important budget bills, and placing secret holds to block judicial appointments. Not only does a filibuster require 60 votes (instead of a majority of 51) to move forward, the tactic wastes days of the Senate’s time for even the most mundane actions. The result? The Senate has become a place where legislation goes to die. It has become unable to pass legislation supported by a majority of Congress, it has left vacancies across the federal judicial system, and it has failed to pass budgets for myriad federal agencies.
Typically a quiet affair, this year’s vote on the Senate rules could be one of the most significant for decades to come. Spearheaded by Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley, a national effort is in place to convince Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to hold a vote to fix the Senate rules when it convenes on January 5, 2011. Please contact your Senators (and email this post along to your friends in other states) and urge them to push Senator Reid to hold a vote to fix the Senate rules and reform the filibuster.
Just how far has the Senate deteriorated? The filibuster was used more in 2009 than in the 1950s and 1960s combined. Are you worried about the economy? In 2010, the Senate couldn’t pass any of the twelve appropriation bills that fund federal agencies for 2011. What about justice? Secret holds placed by anonymous individual senators are crippling our legal system by leaving more than one in ten federal judgeships vacant. A recent casualty was a popular nationwide public lands bill which would have protected 30,000 acres of new Wilderness in Oregon’s coast range, protected 21 miles of the Molalla River outside of Portland as Wild and Scenic, and expanded the Oregon Caves National Monument. All of this legislation passed the US House, had passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and is widely supported by the public. Because of the abuse of the filibuster, it was not even allowed an up or down vote on the Senate floor.
This week may be our only chance to fix the Senate.
The momentum is growing; over 22,000 Sierra Club activists from all 50 states have already sent emails to their senators, and now all fifty-three returning Democratic senators have signed on to a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid calling for reform.