Senator Tom Harkin is renewing his call for changes in senate rules about so-called “filibusters” that block or prevent action on legislation. “The senate is dysfunctional and I think the general public understands that,” Harkin says. “Now, I’m not saying who they blame, but I think everyone recognizes it’s just dysfunctional.”

Filibusters allow a minority of senators to band together to prevent action in the senate. It takes a vote of 60 senators to break a filibuster. Democrats failed this week to break a Republican filibuster on a bill that outlined military spending. Republicans objected to portions of the bill and were able to block its progress with a filibuster.

Harkin, a Democrat, has been trying to change the senate’s operating rules since 1995 to make it more difficult to permanently block legislation. “It promotes majority rule. Secondly, it provides for debate and deliberation,” Harkin says. “You can slow things down, but you can’t absolutely put it in the icebox.”

Harkin says from 1917 to 1969, there was about one filibuster a year in the senate. But by 2007 and 2008, 70 percent of major bills in the senate were subject to the delaying tactic of a filibuster. Harkin argues a small minority now has an unfair “veto power” over issues the majority supports and it’s time to change the operating rules of the senate. 

“I think there’s one take-away from all of the history…and the take-away is this: it’s not written in stone; it’s been changed many times and we can change it again,” Harkin says.  “The world won’t come to an end or anything like that. No calamities will happen.”

Harkin made his comments Wednesday during a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee: Harkintestimony

An editorial Harkin wrote on this topic was recently featured in the magazine Costco sends to its members. 

Supporters of the filibuster say it slows down legislation and gives the public a chance to lodge objections.