Thursday, October 28, 2010

Question Day Answers 2: Senate Leaders

A bunch of questions.  Voltaire writes:
I'm currently in college, and in my class on congressional strategy, my professor is adamant that Harry Reid is one of the worst majority leaders of all-time. His argument is that Harry Reid backs down from his threats, thereby losing all ground in negotiations since the other side knows it doesn't actually have to give up anything during bargaining. More specifically, he says that Reid's threats to let Republicans filibuster are empty since Reid has never forced a live filibuster. The "cost" of filibustering, in both the public eye and terms of Senate norms, has been reduced by Reid into a cheap option Republicans can afford to do all the time.
Historically, how in your view does Reid rate -- especially against some of the ones deemed successful, like Johnson, Mansfield or perhaps Geo Mitchell.
As long as we're talking about Majority Leaders here, it looks like there will be a race between Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin if Reid falls on Tuesday...Given that 1) The Democrats will be fighting the Republicans tooth and nail over the next two years, so they should create clear differences with them and 2) The Democrats are going to be playing major defense in 2012, who should the Dems go with?
Lots of issues, but really the question comes down to: what is the job of the Senator Majority Leader?  I'll tackle that here, and save the specific question about the live filibuster for a second post.

The fundamental problem here is that the Leader's constituency isn't his party at large; it's the other 50+ Senators in his party's caucus.  And we know that what they want out of their leadership is some coordination, but very little of what the Speaker of the House does: they don't want a top-down Senate, adn so their elected leadership isn't going to produce it. 

Now, of course, many majority-party Senators do want to enact something that more or less resembles a party agenda, and to the extent that group is large enough, then the party leadership will be expected to help them get that done.  But that's not going to be the only thing going on.  In the 111th Senate, Democrats from conservative states (and Joe Lieberman) didn't want a public option; moreover, they mostly wanted to be protected from having to vote on it.  Dirty energy Senators didn't want an energy/climate bill to come to the floor.  Kent Conrad and some others cared about deficits.  And quite a few Democratic Senators wanted opportunities to show their independence from their party and from Barack Obama. 

Harry Reid had to protect all those Senators from the things they didn't want, and protect the rights of each Senator to influence outcomes in areas of intense interest, and keep the Senators who wanted to pass the mainstream Democratic agenda happy.  Plus, he had to run for reelection in a state that had fallen into a deep depression. And he had to deal with an almost completely unified GOP following an unprecedented rejectionist, 60 vote strategy.  As far as I can tell, he did somewhere between an excellent and an outstanding job of handling those contradictory imperatives.

I see two big errors, both of which are only marginally Reid's responsibility.  The first is that in my opinion he should have orchestrated a White House push to ask Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy to resign in fall 2008, so that they could be replaced at the peak of Obama's popularity.  I mostly blame Byrd and Kennedy for that, but Reid (along with Joe Biden) was probably in the best position to see that it was the correct move and to know how to appeal to them.  The second one is that I do think that Reid could have processed non-controversial nominations more quickly, but again I trace the failure there to the White House more than to the Senate. 

But the rest of it?  I think it's highly unlikely that the health care outcome is better (for liberals) with a different leader; at best, it's marginally better, but there's also a very good chance of total failure.  I can imagine a climate/energy bill passing, but that was always going to be a tough sell, and to the extent there was a failure to get enough buy-in from everyone I don't think it was really Reid's call.  Immigration?  Never had a chance.  The other stuff that didn't make it (so far) are all smaller, and while I'm sure some people would choose different priorities (DADT repeal over hate crimes?), again it's not at all clear to me that these were Reid's choices, or that he and the Dems had a lot of flexibility. 

All that, of course, basically my impression from afar, and subject to reevaluation when more information comes out.  For a theoretical article on how to evaluate Congressional leadership, see Daniel Palazzolo's piece here, and see elsewhere on that page for more on the Congressional leadership in the 110th Congress.

The rest of the question...I don't really know how to rank Majority Leaders across time; the contexts are so different, both in terms of the political context (size of majority, unified or divided government) and changes in the Senate over time.  Just as a guess, I'd say that George Mitchell was overrated, and Trent Lott underappreciated by Republicans including those in the White House.  I certainly don't think Reid ranks low among the post-LBJ group.  And I couldn't really guess about whether Durbin or Schumer would be a better choice.


  1. Thank you very much for replying to my question.

    I agree with your opinions on Reid's ability to unite Democratic Senators, especially around issues that they don't want to vote on. I think my professor would agree with you, as well. It's the ability to work around the minority party where the difference arises.

    I come down much closer to your opinion on this issue, by the way - I just want to make sure I'm understanding the other side of the argument correctly.

  2. Voltaire,
    Your professor doesn't happen to be Justin Buchler, does it?

  3. @Matt - Let's just say I really hope you're not using a pseudonym.

  4. Anonymity be damned...

    Reid made two big mistakes on healthcare. First, he didn't start with budget reconciliation. Under reconciliation rules, no cloture vote is necessary to end debate. Second, he let Max Baucus dawdle in a futile attempt to bring Grassley on board. That gave us the summer of town hall protests, which weakened the spines of the moderate Dems. (Yes, Jon, I know that the raw support-oppose numbers didn't move during the summer of 09, but intensity did move for opponents, and that scared the moderates). The only part of the bill that couldn't have been done through reconciliation is the package of regulations for insurance companies (the pre-existing conditions stuff, etc.), and Reid should have dared the Republicans to filibuster that as a separate bill. He may not have been able to get that bill through, but the Republicans would have looked horrible.

    However, if you really want to understand Reid's lack of a spine and unwillingness to force a full filibuster, look at two issues: extension of unemployment benefits, and extension of middle class tax cuts. Imagine if Reid had forced Republicans to go through with a filibuster blocking tax cuts for the middle class because it didn't give big enough cuts to the top 2%. Imagine if he had done that right before an election. Reid didn't have the spine to force it. Pathetic.

    So, I come back to a basic observation. Filibusters increased dramatically from the 109th Senate to the 110th Senate, which is when Reid took over as majority leader. That increase cannot be explained by an increase in polarization because the Senate was no more polarized in the 110th than it was in the 109th. It cannot be explained by Republicans' intrinsic willingness to filibuster because filibusters did not increase from the 106th to the 107th (remembering that for most of the 107th, the Dems had control of the Senate because of Jeffords). It cannot be explained by the minority party's need to obstruct the majority under unified government because the 110th was divided. It cannot be explained by the Republican's desire to protect the president from having to veto because Bush was a lame duck in the 110th, but not the 107th, and they filibustered more in the 110th. It cannot be explained by a shift in the legislative agenda because the Republicans were even filibustering trivial stuff. The only thing that I can see that explains the increase in filibusters from the 109th to the 110th Senate is that the Republicans knew that Reid would never make them pay a price for filibustering the way Republicans made Daschle pay in 2004. Whether or not that calculation was in their heads explicitly, though, it was clearly right. Republicans made Daschle pay for the judicial filibusters. Reid doesn't make the Republicans pay, even on easy issues like the extension of unemployment and the extension of middle class tax cuts. Whatever the reason for the increase in obstruction, Republicans have not been made to pay for it, and that's just dumb.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?