Thursday, January 27, 2011

Senate Reform Goes Dormant (But It's Not Dead)

Both Ezra Klein and Greg Sargent interpret today's agreement on Senate reform -- in which Harry Reid explicitly and apparently unconditionally pledged not to attempt to change the rules with a simple majority vote -- as the end of the road for reform. The reasoning? Since neither party will ever reach the 67 votes it takes to unilaterally change the rules by using the rules, the only way significant reforms will happen will be through either a majority vote, or, perhaps more likely, in response to a threat of a majority vote. So by taking that threat off the table, Reid is basically ensuring the safety of the filibuster and the 60-vote Senate forever.

I'm not convinced.

What's promised today can be revoked tomorrow. Now, comity is an important value within the Senate, and I hardly expect Reid to go back on his word without clear provocation. But clear provocation is in the eye of the beholder. Harry Reid is a very partisan Senator, and I won't be surprised at all if at some point he finds reason to at least begin threatening that he'll move off his pledge.

And that, as Klein and Sargent correctly say, is really the issue: at what point now will Reid threaten a simple majority rules change as leverage to force less obstruction? It seems to me that we already know that he's been reluctant to do so, at least publicly, so it's not news that he'll be reluctant to do it (at least publicly) in the future. But I'm not sure that this changes anything.

Meanwhile, it's very possible that the Democrats struck a fairly good bargain this time around for how the Senate will run for the next two years. The key issue at this point is whether Republicans really are going to cooperate in confirming (that is, allowing votes on) all but the most controversial nominees. If so, that's a pretty good trade for dropping much of the the largely inconsequential Udall/Merkley/Harkin reforms. For the rest...well, on legislation, filibusters matter far more in times of unified than divided government. My guess is that when those conditions reappear, whoever is Majority Leader at the time will find an excuse to more towards further reform. Notwithstanding whatever was promised today.


  1. I think the other point that should be made is that the majority leader cannot necessarily stop a rule change. However unlikely this might be, the chair and a majority of senators could create their own rule. A liberal coalition essentially did this in 1975, forcing majority leader Byrd and conservative democrats to agree to the 60 senator cloture rule.

  2. Nobody should be surprised when McConnell and co. decide every nomination by President Obama meets the criteria of being controversial enough to filibuster.

    I guess the reality is that with Republicans controlling the House it doesn't really matter whether the Senate minority can filibuster legislation the next 2 years. Any bill that can pass the House will almost certainly draw support from enough GOP Senators to reach cloture. Should the Democrats regain the House in 2012, though, they're going to regret not doing more to limit filibusters now.


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