Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Catch of the Day

The catch is to Jonathan Chait, for noticing that Mitch McConnell's threat to Harry Reid on the filibuster wasn't especially scary:
Ooh, repealing Obamacare with a majority vote — scary! Except that McConnell has already threatened to do this anyway through budget reconciliation rules, which don't require a supermajority. That's not really much of a deterrent.
Well, yes.

A broader point: if Democrats believe that Republicans will inevitably turn the Senate into a majority party rules institution as soon as they get the majority, then there's a strong incentive for Democrats to make that reform now whether or not they actually support it.

The tricky thing is if Senators and other insiders believe that Republicans will be very hesitant to move on reform, but if liberal activists and other outsiders are absolutely convinced that Republicans will do so -- which may be exactly what Reid is faced with. In that situation, activists will find the inaction of Democratic Senators totally inexplicable, but Democratic Senators may believe that the outsiders are just wrong.

Of course -- that leaves out the big question of which side is actually correct. It's very possible that Republican Senators currently believe that they will not initiate Senate reform should they take the majority, but in fact pressure from Republican activists will push them to do so anyway. In that scenario, using Republican Senators (and their staffs, and other Senate insiders) as a source would be actively misleading.

On the other hand, it's certainly possible that Republicans (whenever they take control) will live by the same rules that Democrats have live with for the past few years. After all, Republicans did not, in fact, go nuclear when George W. Bush was president. Some fudging of reconciliation rules, a fair amount of bluster, but nothing more. There are in fact strong incentives for individual Senators to retain their rights, and that applies just as much to Republicans as to Democrats. So if Senate Democrats believe that Republicans would respect Senate rules -- and the fact that Democrats have moved slowly towards reform indicates they do -- then they might be right, after all.

My guess has been that what Republicans would actually do will depend on lots of different things, including size of their majority, presidential priorities, and which particular Republicans make up their Senate conference. So it's uncertain.

But to get back to the original point: Nice catch!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. When did doing what's popular become a bad thing?

  3. Well, the bottom line is that if it can be plausibly argued that the filibuster stands between the Republicans and one of their goals - say repealing the ACA - then a vote against removing the filibuster can be used as opposition to that goal, and that senator facing a primary challenge in a flash.

    Senators love retaining their rights, but they love retaining their jobs even more. And if the whole of the partisan noise machine gets hold of it, then the incentive will be to go along. I would not be surprised if they take out the filibuster.

  4. I would be shocked if the GOP actually removes or even modifies the filibuster should they gain a majority in the Senate. It's far more valuable as a tool for conservatives to block new liberal legislation and appointments than it is an impediment to them passing conservative bills.

    Far more likely is they will just use the reconciliation process in ways that simply would never occur to Democrats and/or that Democrats would never have the brazenness to do. For instance, they might try to repeal the ACA entirely in reconciliation and use their majority to summarily dismiss any points of order raised by Democrats asserting that repealing ACA increases the deficit or that certain provisions of ACA are not budget-related and thus can't be repealed in reconciliation.

  5. I'd agree, but what makes me unsure is the Senate election calendar. Many more Democrats than Republicans are up for election this year and the next. Republican seats only go at risk massively in the 2016 election. Because of this, does it make sense for Democrats to do things early? There's the risk of undoing the filibuster and then having disastrous outcomes suddenly hit under a Romney administration in 2015-2016. On this reasoning, it's better to wait and do it first thing in 2017.

    I'm a huge supporter of Jeff Merkley, who's one of the forces driving Senate filibuster reform, and I'm proud to say that we've had some personal communication on this topic. While I think it'd be great long-term to get rid of the filibuster, I'm worried about the short-term. Would it make better sense for Democrats to wait until 2017?

  6. I do not think there is a significant chance of major filibuster reform. The filibuster hugely empowers the individual Senator, giving them leverage on issues of greatest importance to each of them pesonally and/or to their states. Individual House members who are not in the party leadership or chairs of major committees have little individual power, and I cannot see Senators voluntarily agreeing to make themselves nearly as powerless as individual House members. The true idealogues of left (like Merkley) and right might well want to abolish the filibuster for short-term ideological gain, but for most high level politicians, their individual power is more important to them than their ideologies.


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