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December 17, 2012

Fix the Senate Now

On December 6, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed a piece of legislation in the Senate that would allow the debt ceiling to be raised. Just a few short hours later, McConnell stood up on the Senate floor and actually filibustered his own legislation, effectively killing the bill that he himself authored.

You couldn't make this stuff up.

When Americans hear the word "filibuster," they might picture impassioned, hours-long speeches like Jimmy Stewart's in that classic scene from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But when McConnell killed his own bill last week, he only had to threaten to filibuster rather than actually take the floor. As Senator Jeff Merkley said, "It used to be that people wanted to take responsibility for their obstruction."

Not anymore. Under current Senate rules, it's staggeringly easy for important legislation to be derailed. Just the threat of a filibuster by a minority of senators can stop a bill in its tracks -- and we've seen it happen over and over. In 2009, the American Clean Energy and Security Act -- which would have represented substantial progress in addressing the climate crisis -- died in the Senate under the threat of a filibuster. Over the past six years, almost 400 Senate bills have stalled this way.

Enough is enough. That's why the Sierra Club has joined a coalition that's calling for rule changes to help end this obstructionism. Organizations ranging from the Communications Workers of America to the NAACP to Common Cause are all onboard, because we know that if we want to see legislative progress on our nation's problems -- from the fiscal showdown to the climate crisis -- we have to fix the Senate.

Mr. Smith fans don't need to worry. The changes we're asking for won't end filibusters but will make sure they’re used as our founders intended. Senators will have just one chance to filibuster -- not multiple opportunities to obstruct. Currently, many filibusters happen on motions to bring legislation up for debate -- not in the context of actual deliberation on bills. The U.S. Senate is often described as "the world's greatest deliberative body" -- so let's give the senators a chance to deliberate.

Oh, and senators should no longer be able to kill a bill just by threatening a filibuster. We should actually make them stand up and do it.

Americans get it. A new poll shows that more than 70 percent of us are in favor of changes to the Senate rules, with only 20 percent opposed.

Leaving the rules as they are is not an option. A "handshake" deal between senators won't work, either. That's all been tried before, and the problem has only gotten worse. Our nation faces too many challenges and opportunities -- spurring clean-energy growth, helping middle-class families, addressing the climate crisis -- to settle for a "do-nothing" Senate.

You can help. Call your senator's office and tell them it's time to fix the filibuster.


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Michael Brune

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