Sen. Strom Thurmond sets the filibuster record of 24 hours,...

Sen. Strom Thurmond sets the filibuster record of 24 hours, 18 minutes, in 1957 in a futile effort to oppose civil rights legislation. The Senate's rules on filibusters were different then, making the tactic far more rare than in the 2010s. Credit: AP

Majority rule is the first thing most children learn about democracy. It's the essence of how this large, fractious nation governs itself.

Except in the U.S. Senate.

There the rules allow members to filibuster to block debate or a vote. And because it requires 60 of 100 senators to end the stall, the modern Senate has become the place where, too often, legislation goes to die.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, four members of the House of Representatives, the good-government group Common Cause and a handful of ordinary citizens launched a frontal attack on the filibuster, charging it's an unconstitutional violation of majority rule. They argue quite compellingly that it gives veto power over bills and presidential appointments to a minority of 40 senators, who could be elected from states that contain as little as 11 percent of the population.

The courts may never rule on its constitutionality, however. Previous challenges have been derailed by side issues such as whether the plaintiffs' stake in the Senate rule is direct enough to give them standing to sue. Another legitimate concern is whether the constitutional separation of powers denies the courts a say on Senate rules.

But there's no question that the filibuster is being abused. In the 1950s, the Senate averaged about one every two years. In the Congress that ended in December 2010, the number ballooned to 137. The filibuster has become the road to gridlock, with Democrats and Republicans taking turns at the wheel.

A Democratic minority filibustered repeatedly to block confirmation of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. And in 2010, a Republican minority threatened to filibuster every item on the Democrats' agenda until it got tax cuts extended for the nation's top earners.

We should return to the days when Senators had to stand on the floor and talk continuously to prevent a vote. The rule that allows a single senator to anonymously block action unless 60 senators vote to proceed should be eliminated. So should the power to prevent even the debate on a bill.

The filibuster should be what it once was: a rare form of public political theater.