Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reform: The Motion to Proceed

One of the popular reform proposals, and one which Harry Reid has been talking about quite a bit, is eliminating the opportunity to filibuster the "motion to proceed" to a bill.

I'm...not all that excited about it. Yeah, I know the rhetoric -- that it's somehow undemocratic to block even consideration of a bill. I don't much care about that. Lots of bills don't reach the Senate floor, for lots of reasons.

The main reason that bills don't reach the Senate floor is that they don't have the votes to pass, and the majority doesn't like to waste scarce floor time on things that won't pass. Eliminating the need to get 60 to get to the floor doesn't change at all the (de facto) requirement that a bill needs 60 to pass. And so the majority isn't going to bring a bill to the floor unless it has that 60, regardless of whether the motion to proceed is a hurdle or not.

(There's an exception, but in my view not an important one. Sometimes the majority wants to bring a bill to the floor for spin value, even knowing it cannot pass. The motion to proceed hurdle prevents that, sort of, but not really; the majority can keep the debate over the motion to proceed to the bill on the floor as long as they like, and that should produce exactly the same spin value).

Stepping back...there are several possible problems -- not all of which everyone would agree are problems -- that Senate reform could address. 

One is that it takes 60 Senators to pass a bill or confirm a nomination.

Another is that one Senator, or a small group of Senators, can delay things for quite a long time; in some cases, that delay may be long enough to kill something.

Another is that a party can delay something for quite a long time even if the majority has 60 votes or more for passage; again, in some cases, that delay may be long enough to kill something.

And yet another is that a party can delay so many things for so long that the overall capacity of the Senate is affected, even if they don't actually kill (or even try to kill) any of the bills or nominations they use along the way. Take six hours of floor time on a judge who is eventually confirmed unanimously instead of, say, one hour, and that's five hours that can't be used for something else.

Eliminating the motion to proceed does nothing at all for the first of these problems. It does little or nothing for the other three, depending on what other reforms are introduced; there are just so many opportunities for delay in the Senate rules, few of which are fully exploited by the opposition, that eliminating one of them mainly rearranges things a bit.

Besides: in my view, the Senate majority hasn't come anywhere close to fully using the available floor time, so I'm not entirely convinced how big a problem these last three obstacles are. Are there really bills which had sixty votes over the last few years which were put aside simply because the minority was going to take up too much time? Certainly not any high-priority bills.

(This does not appear to be Harry Reid's view. His concern is how long it takes for debate to begin. But the Senate doesn't have to sit around doing nothing in the meantime, so what's the problem?)

All that said: I don't exactly think that the extra filibuster opportunity on the motion to proceed to a bill is important to the proper functioning of the Senate. The Senate does just fine without filibusters on bringing nominations to the floor; it will do fine without filibusters on bringing bills to the floor. I just don't really see how eliminating it will change much of anything.


  1. Basically Reid is just trying to placate junior reformist Senators and liberal activists by doing the least possible that he can then call "filibuster reform." Anything short of changing the number of votes required for final passage of bills and nominations means obstructionism will continue full force as long as there are 41 conservative Republican Senators who are committed to voting in partisan lockstep to obstruct everything (which would seem to be the case for the foreseeable future).

    1. Somewhat disagree; as far as I can tell, the leading reformers are getting what they want.

      (Also, somewhat disagree: I think that there are other reforms that can matter to some extent).

  2. Here's a research topic suggestion for ambitious young scholars: Is there some kind of "Stockholm syndrome" going on, whereby otherwise intelligent and reasonable political science scholars become overly attached to the details of their field of study, and thus give excessive deference to existing historical accidents of the political landscape, and become excessively dismissive of any possibility of any reform having an effect for the better?

    As an experiment, perhaps groups of political scientists could be tested against similar groups of economists and anthropologists. All groups would receive a one-hour lecture on the pros and cons of, say, the institution of the Senate filibuster, and then answer a series of questions on their own conclusions. I would propose that the economists and anthropologists would be found significantly more opposed to the filibuster, overall as an institution, and more favorable to any proposed reforms, than the political scientists.

    Of course, the political scientists would still say their understanding is deeper and better, and of course a study of economists or anthropologists would show probably find them as attached to the premises of their fields of study as well. Clearly more research is needed, yet it could be an interesting direction for future scholars.

  3. Seems like any senator who actually was in favor of reform could simply say, right now, that they're personally pressing all of the buttons to gum up the works starting January (15th? what's the right day?). Withdraw unanimous consent from everything, ask for every bill to be read out loud, whatever the mechanisms are. And declare that they will press every single button at every opportunity - and the only way around that is to change the rules so those buttons have no effect.


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