By Tyler Davis

The filibuster is an infamous practice used in the U.S. Senate that stalls legislation by allowing members to extend debates. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently said he would like to limit the use of filibusters and require senators to actually speak on the Senate floor if they want to delay a vote on legislation, according to a Nov. 26 Washington Times article. According to a Nov. 28 Huffington Post article, Reid’s proposal has the support of President Barack Obama.

Contrary to popular belief, filibustering senators no longer read the phonebook in order to stall legislation. The majority party could technically force obstructing senators to literally “talk out” the filibuster, but this would prompt a “quorum call,” and more time would be wasted taking roll call. If fewer than 51 senators decide to watch the filibuster, the minority senators could sit down and comfortably obstruct legislation from their chairs while other business is conducted. Reid’s proposal would eliminate this loophole and require filibustering senators to occupy

the floor.

A filibuster can be ended by a vote, but this requires three-fifths of the Senate, which is 60 senators, rather than a simple majority.

It used to be that when senators wanted to filibuster, they’d actually talk it out. In the 1970s, a Senate rule change allowed more than one bill to be considered simultaneously, referred to as a “two-track system,” so other business could be conducted while a piece of legislation was being filibustered, according to a March 9, 2010, op-ed in the New York Times. As a result, it became easier to filibuster a bill without having to ramble for hours on the Senate floor.

In 1957, Sen. Strom Thurmond spent more than 24 consecutive hours on the Senate floor to delay a vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He was even thoughtful enough to permit other Senate business to proceed during his all-day talk-a-thon by letting another bill go to vote on the condition that he be allowed to continue speaking after it was voted on.

Thurmond may have wasted a whole day bitching about civil rights, but requiring him to actually speak at length was important because he now is remembered as the man who literally stood in the way of civil rights. If senators want to hold legislation hostage, they should be forced to speak on the Senate floor and take heat for wasting time like Thurmond did.

If a senator is required to occupy the floor for a filibuster, the topic of discussion usually becomes irrelevant to the goal of wasting time and leads to some pretty bizarre fodder. Sen. Huey Long read his recipe for fried oysters in 1935, and Reid even took the floor to filibuster judicial nominees in 2003 by discussing how much he liked wooden matches, according to a 2005 Christian Science Monitor article. It may sound like the premise for a Monty Python sketch, but elected officials have long discussed nonsensical topics at length rather than vote on the issue at hand.

Because of the ridiculous nature of an actual filibuster, changes in the rules may cause would-be obstructionists to reconsider. In our digital age, a 24-hour filibuster could give a senator unwanted attention on YouTube. Forcing senators to actually talk out their filibusters would mean that the practice comes with the threat of humiliation via hashtag and meme. Imagine the photoshopped images of Reid with wooden matches that would have been posted all over Facebook had the Internet been what it is today when he filibustered in 2003.

Many Republican senators oppose filibuster reform. Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma warned that the proposed rule changes would limit “minority rights,” according to a Nov. 25 Politico article. Coburn was referring to the minority party in the Senate—Republicans—which may be one of the rare occasions you hear a senator like Coburn stick up for any minority, in this case old white people.

The Senate minority should have options for influencing legislation to some extent, but there should be limits. Reid isn’t pushing for the complete elimination of the filibuster because there are times when the practice is necessary in preventing what Founding Father John Adams called the “tyranny of the majority.” It is important for the Senate minority to have the ability to stop a bill from going through with a simple majority when the legislation in question has large implications and the opposition is underrepresented. Filibuster reform would simply remove the incentive to abuse obstruction practices in order to hold the Senate hostage and require a 60-vote supermajority for every piece of legislation.