Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Senate Reform on Mad Men Time

In 1958, Democrats won a huge landslide in the last midterm with Eisenhower as president.  Democrats had maintained majorities in Congress since 1955, but the 1958 elections gave liberal Democrats their first solid majorities in twenty years.  Then in 1960, John Kennedy was elected and liberals controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House...

...and nothing happened.  Well, not quite nothing, but most of the liberal agenda was stopped by rules that empowered conservatives in the House of Representatives. Yup, the House, not (primarily) the Senate.

And so the first Congress with JFK in the White House was relatively unproductive, and Democrats didn't do especially well in the 1962 midterms.  Meanwhile, liberals inside and outside of Congress applied major pressure for reform, and in fact during those years, liberals in the House enacted major reforms.  So Democrats started passing major legislation including the Civil Rights Act, and then when Democrats won another landslide in 1964, Congress was ready to enact the preferences of large liberal majorities, and the result was the famous 89th Congress.

The point is that it's certainly not unprecedented in American history for a party to win large majorities and be partially stymied by Congressional rules, but that the likely result is, in fact, reform -- especially if they continue winning.  Simple majorities are often not enough, but one of the forms of supermajority that can work is consistent majorities over time.

I can't predict that Democrats are going to do as well electorally in the upcoming elections as they did in 1962 and 1964.  I can, however, predict with a lot of confidence that if they do -- which would mean relatively small losses in 2010 followed by a solid victory in 2012 -- that we'll see similar results.  That's the message that Jamelle Bouie and Matt Yglesias brought back from Las Vegas (and the Netroots Nation confab).  This is, basically, how things work.  Issues don't really emerge suddenly and then pass when your side wins an election; issues emerge slowly over time, and generally pass when (1) you win an election and (2) that issue has reached priority status.

Virtually no Democrats ran in 2006 or 2008 on Senate reform.  I haven't checked, but I'd guess that quite a few are this year, especially those in contested primaries.  And if Democrats do (relatively) well this fall -- keep the House, lose 3-5 Senate seats or better -- then virtually every Democrat in 2012, most likely including Barack Obama, is going to include Senate reform in their platforms.

In other words, I think Ezra Klein's campaign for blindfolded reform -- change the rules now to take effect in six years or so, in order that no one can know which party will benefit -- is extremely unlikely, but I agree with him that reform is coming, one way or another.  As Klein says:
We are, however, getting closer and closer to the day when someone does change the rules. Republicans tried to protect judges from the filibuster under Sen. Bill Frist. Democrats are talking about changing the rules at the start of the 112th Congress. And now that they're talking about it, are they really confident that if Republicans take the Senate back in 2012 or 2014, that they won't do what the Democrats couldn't and change the rules in their favor?


  1. On the 1960 election

    Then in 1960, John Kennedy was elected and liberals controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House...

    actually it's more accurate to say the Dems, but not the liberals, controlled Congress. In that year where JFK was very narrowly elected, his party actually lost ground in both chambers -- 1 in the senate, 20 seats in the House. And it was only because Kennedy, in his first major act with Congress, pushed hard to get 3 more members (and thus more liberals) in the legislation-blocking House Rules Comm'ee, that anything positive was done in that Congress. And that reform just barely passed, after major lifting from all hands in the Kennedy admin and the Dem Speaker.

    You also write

    and Democrats didn't do especially well in the 1962 midterms.

    but that of course is not the case. 1962 was one of the most successful midterm elections for the party in power in the WH of the 20th C -- for Dems, they netted two senate seats while losing only 4 in the House (see wiki for all election #s). At this point Ds were at least knocking loudly on the door towards achieving a progressive majority -- but they wouldn't open it until the 1964 landslide election.

    As for the passage of the 1964 CR Act, the success was less due to any actual liberal majority than to other factors: the post-assassination attitude in the land in favor of Kennedy legislation and the disfavor of the anti-CR far right; some legislative legerdemain by Leader Mike Mansfield (skillfully using the rules to bypass the anti-CR Judiciary Comm'ee), plus plenty of flattering pressure by Ds like Sen Humphrey (bill's floor leader) put on non-liberal Minority Leader Dirksen, who eventually saw the light of history and sided with most Ds to end the filibuster.

    It would be extraordinary if in 2010 Ds were to even come close to their midterm success of 1962. Of course back then, JFK had just come off his very successful peaceful resolution of the Missile Crisis, no US combat troops in a war, plus the economy was in good shape. No major complaints, and he was a very popular and well-respected president beginning to build a solid track record of achievement.

    Obama, by contrast, has only the modest HCR bill and some other small-ball legislative achievements to boast about, while having to still explain the stalled and troubled economy while the Afghan War is now his quagmire, and is increasingly unpopular with the majority. One thing he and major Dem voices could talk up more vocally as an issue is the filibuster abuse by Repubs, and Ds intention to reform/eliminate it come January. It could help better explain to voters why things aren't better with jobs, and could energize a liberal base badly in need of Eliz Warren plus one more issue.

  2. Fair points, and I was definitely sloppy wrt the 1962 midterms. Were liberals in the majority in 1961-1964? I don't think it's cut-and-dried, is it? You're definitely correct about the key event being the packing of the Rules Committee in the House -- but that could only happen because the Democratic Caucus was safely liberal, which was a change from pre-1958 (when the caucus actually never met...I'd have to look up whether they met once to organize the Congress or not, but I know they basically never met after the Congress was in session).

    And while I don't disagree with anything you say, I think it's worth emphasizing just how frustrated liberals were at the (lack of) legislative success in 1961-1962, or really 1959-1962.

    (Also, I think it's probably more correct to give credit for packing the Rules Committee to liberals in the House, not to Kennedy. No?).

    Oh -- I actually do have one disagreement. I'd say the legislative record of the 111th Congress is leaps and bounds better, just in terms of productivity and importance, than what the 87th Congress (1961-1962) did. I don't think it matters that much for the midterms, but I don't think it's close.

  3. Even with growth in numbers liberals needed help on the big CR bills, which is how you now have Republicans claiming more of them voted for civil rights than the Democrats.

  4. the key event being the packing of the Rules Committee in the House -- but that could only happen because the Democratic Caucus was safely liberal,

    Dems could only increase the total # of House Rules members by a majority vote not of their caucus but of the entire House. Final vote was (iirc) 217-212 -- a very narrow passage, but thx only to the hard work of JFK, Larry O'Brien (his liaison to Cong), Speaker Rayburn, and a few other Kennedy admin insiders. In JFK's words (paraphrasing), "Getting this through is the whole ball game" -- meaning, if it had failed, which it nearly did, his entire legis program for that Congress would be a goner.

    And while I agree generally that liberals, including JFK, were frustrated not getting more through Congress in 61-2, even less would have been accomplished had that Rules comm'ee change not been done.

    (Though a book by ex UCLA prof Irving Bernstein from the early 90s, Promises Kept, argues plausibly that Kennedy actually accomplished more in those years than he's usually credited with, and overall for his nearly 3 yrs in office, his record of legislation was better than Ike's and only somewhat less successful than Johnson's, but not by a huge margin.)

  5. The most likely outcome of the next two elections is that the 2010 will produce a smaller, but more liberal Dem majority in the House and then 2012 will bring a larger, more liberal Dem majority in the House.

    The seats that the Dems will lose this year are heavily weighted towards the right of their caucus. The seats they will pick up in 2012 will be from places like California and new (due to redistricting) minority districts in Texas and Florida.

    That will put even more pressure on the Senate to reform their rules.

  6. (Also, I think it's probably more correct to give credit for packing the Rules Committee to liberals in the House, not to Kennedy. No?).

    It was Kennedy who early in the admin's first days told Speaker Sam Rayburn that he wanted the change, though for sure the Rules Comm'ee problem had been building for years pre-JFK presidency. Rayburn came back to him later after an initial vote estimate with a discouraging word: "I don't think we have the votes, Mr President" (VP Johnson was similarly pessimistic).

    It was Kennedy who then decided to make a fight for it, using O'Brien, RFK, Ken O'Donnell and several others to work reluctant Reps, though Rayburn worked hard himself behind the scenes and preferred the new prez stay out lest he badly hurt himself politically right at the outset (which advice Kennedy of course didn't follow, thinking the matter too important to leave to the two Texans Rayburn and Lyndon).

    In the end, 22 Repubs (nearly all northeasterners) supported Kennedy despite their party leader publicly opposing it, while a whopping 64 Dems (southern/border staters) opposed their own president. Different party times back then, and Kennedy was on notice that getting anything substantially progressive through this Cong would still be difficult.

    Interesting sidebar to the final 217-212 vote: afterwards, a relieved Pres Kennedy received congratulatory phone calls from all in his admin and Cong who'd participated in the effort. All but one involved person that is called to congratulate. JFK went into his sec'y Mrs Lincoln's office to ask: "No call from the VIce President?" Mrs Lincoln: "No sir." Evelyn Lincoln, in her 1968 memoir (Kennedy and Johnson) described the president as having a puzzled look on his face as he walked back to the Oval Office.


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