When West Virginia's Sen. Joe Manchin pushed a simple plan to keep pistols and assault guns out of the hands of criminals and psychotics, most Americans supported him. Polls found that 90 percent want background checks extended to nearly all gun sales, preventing unfit people from buying weapons through gun shows and ads. A clear majority of U.S. senators stood with Manchin.
But his plan was defeated. Why? Because ancient Senate rules let the Republican minority threaten a filibuster, which meant that passage required a 60 percent majority of senators. Thus a stubborn minority of tea party conservatives blocked the will of 90 percent of Americans.
Filibusters once were rare, and required protesting senators to stand at their desks for hours, even days, speaking endlessly. But now the far-right clique calls filibusters frequently and no talkathon is needed. Reformer-scholar Benjamin Barber says the tactic has become "the everyday recourse of reckless minorities who hold democracy itself in contempt."
Since each state has two senators, regardless of the state's size, the upper chamber of Congress itself is undemocratic. Dr. Barber wrote:
"The Senate is already enormously skewed, with some senators like those from North Dakota representing a group of citizens numbering in the hundreds of thousands able to outvote senators from states like California representing tens of millions of citizens. The filibuster skews further an already deeply skewed chamber. Forty senators representing less than a third of the population can vote down legislation favored by those representing two-thirds -- and nowadays does so routinely, more or less paralyzing government even when substantial majorities favor change."
He added: "What a perfect recipe not just for undermining the progressive agenda but for destroying trust in democracy itself. For those who want to prove that government doesn't work, what better tactic than to use the filibuster to assure it won't."
This week, President Obama is preparing to nominate three judges to U.S. District Court in Washington -- and Senate Republicans plan to filibuster to obstruct them. (Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, even has drafted a bill to abolish the three court seats, rather than let Obama fill them.)
The Los Angeles Times urges Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to employ the "nuclear option" -- "That's Washington-speak for a parliamentary maneuver in which, by majority vote, the Senate would determine that a filibuster of judicial nominees was unconstitutional. If that were to occur, a judge could be confirmed by a simple majority."
It's a shame that this parliamentary trick is needed to let the Senate perform its job of confirming appointees. Preferably, Senate rules should be changed to abolish filibusters entirely. Democracy works by majority rule, and minorities shouldn't continue obstructing democracy.