Tuesday, September 21, 2010

DREAM, DADT, and Majority Rule in the Senate

Last time I mentioned Brian Darling of Heritage here is was in connection with his appearance at the APSA panel on the filibuster.  I was not kind.  As I hinted at in that earlier post, what really bothered me is that I think there are indeed strong arguments in favor of current Senate rules, and although on balance I'm for reforming rules and procedures, I'd like both sides to make their cases without resorting to partisan bickering and nonsense.

I'm happy to report that today Darling has a much more reasonable post, pointing out the complexity of the Senate situation with regard to the Defense Authorization bill, including (or not) the DREAM immigration provision and DADT repeal.  His specific complaint here is that Harry Reid planned to use procedural mechanisms available to him as Majority Leader ("filling the amendment tree") to prevent Republicans from offering popular amendments.  Now, I haven't been following this particular debate closely enough to know whether Darling's complaint in this particular case has merit -- whether the fault lies more with Reid, for structuring votes to allow skittish Dems to avoid legitimate issues they would rather avoid, or with the Republicans, for filibustering everything (including some Republicans willing to filibuster measures they themselves actually support.  Still, regardless of who might ultimately be at fault, it will be true that if the bill remains stuck it will only be in part because of Republican obstruction.  It will also be in part because Democrats chose to fight for a configuration of provisions for which they (apparently) did not have the votes.

On the larger issue, however, I think Darling is generally correct: while the minority uses Senate rules to force supermajority votes, the majority party uses those same rules to manipulate votes as they see fit.  In other words, the notion that the Senate would have some sort of pure majority rule if only the filibuster was eliminated (read as: simple majorities were needed on all votes) is incorrect.  Such a Senate would not have majority rule; it would have majority party rule, which is a very different thing.  One can, of course, argue that majority party rule is a good thing, but not on the grounds that the will of the Senate (defined as simple majorities) would prevail on each issue.  Moreover, it's hardly the case that winning a majority in Congress, even a very large majority, means that a party has the support of the American people for each and every one of its policy initiatives.  And even if both of those were the case, one might still believe that minorities should have the right to force votes on items they feel strongly about.  Again, none of that to me leads to the conclusion that current Senate rules and procedures are ideal.  However, both sides in my view have reasonable arguments available, and I think there's a chance that reform, when it comes, may be better if those arguments are more fully debated.


  1. Actually, I think the principle of majority party rule is preferable to that of majority rule.

    But, then again, I'm a big fan of parties and a big opponent of voters.

  2. I have a comprehensive paper coming out on this subject in a week or two. According to Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has blocked amendments 40 times with his tactic of "Filling the Amendment Tree." The Heritage Foundation should be publishing a paper on this subject soon and I hope you will take some time to read my publication.


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