Monday, January 28, 2013

Future of Senate Reform

Chris Bowers (who seems to be blogging a lot now, which is excellent news) argues that the main obstacle to  Senate reform has been senior Senators -- and that therefore cohort replacement will eventually produce much more significant reforms that what the Senate managed to enact last week. He has a nice chart which highlights the role of senior liberal Democrats in opposing Merkley/Udall.

The problem here is that we don't know whether folks such as Barbara Boxer and Carl Levin are reluctant to support reform (or perhaps reluctant to support majority-imposed reform) because they share values and norms of a disappearing Senate -- or because Senators tend to evolve in that direction as a result of long service in that chamber. If the former, the Senate Democratic caucus might be purely pro-reform in ten years; if the latter, a different group of senior Senators will be reluctant to move quickly on reform -- if though they supported it this time around.

And there's a third possibility. It's possible that the senior Democrats who resisted reform were in speaking for many junior Democrats who found it difficult to take that position publicly.

Of course, the other part of this -- perhaps the most important part -- is that the partisan context overrides most of this. I strongly suspect that had Democrats had only mild setbacks in the 2010 elections and then emerged from the 2012 elections with unified control that they likely would have implemented more substantial reform last week (if not earlier). On the other hand, while I don't really expect Jeff Merkley or Tom Udall to flip, I would guess that most Democrats will turn anti-reform if Republicans take control of the Senate in 2014 or 2016 -- and most Republicans will turn pro-reform.

I do expect the next Republican majority to be somewhat less hesitant on reform than the current Democratic majority. On the other hand, Republicans did not, in fact, use majority-imposed reform when they had the Senate during the George W. Bush presidency (although they did threaten it in order to get judicial nominations through by simple majority). On the other other hand, however, Democrats didn't enforce a full 60 vote Senate back then; they might, following Obama-era Republicans, do that next time.

Meanwhile, if Democrats survive 2014 with little damage and then win a landslide in 2016 -- especially one that leaves them with united government but a few short of 60 Senators -- then I think majority-imposed reform (or very significant reform driven by the threat of majority-imposed reform) becomes very, very, likely.

Which is only to repeat that partisan context matters more than cohort replacement.


  1. I don't have the data, but one can separate the two hypotheses somewhat.

    If its older norms, I would expect service in CONGRESS from before some date (1995 comes to mind, as does 2001) to predict opposition, and possibly age somewhat. These things are not PERFECTLY correlated with tenure.

    Here's the wrinkle: are we introducing ANOTHER hypothesis: former service in the majority-rules House makes people favor that system more?

    In the end, I imagine partisan context matters most, anyway, and our N is too small to do anything with.

  2. I think an interesting question is whether there are Democrats who are pro-reform enough to support it even after Republicans take over, and if there are enough of them to make up for anti-reform Republicans. I can't speak for my senator, but I would support reform no matter which side was in the majority when it was proposed.

  3. The trade-off for each Senator is whether you want to be individually more powerful (which in the long run the filibuster provides for), or to have your party get more of their policies enacted, at the cost of your opponents getting more of their policies enacted if they control a majority of the Senate at a future date. As an economic conservative, I prefer the filibuster to continue, as the threat of leftist economic leveling is greater than the potential benefit of enacting free market reforms when Republicans have a Senate majority. As an individual Senator, I'd be inclined to support the filibuster, as it would empower me as an individual Senator, but of course that's not an argument that you can make in public.

    1. The "power" granted by the filibuster is only a veto. It can only be used to preserve the status quo and not to change anything.

      These Senators are holding onto the power to not accomplish anything at all. This strikes me a no power at all.

      Anybody can not accomplish something.

    2. swain - isn't it sometimes true that senators use the threat of a filibuster to extract concessions? obviously this is a fairly blunt instrument of power. but i disagree that it only allows them to preserve the status quo.

    3. These days everything gets filibustered and not much of anything gets done. The main effect of the filibuster is to kill legislation.

      During the 111th congress the Dems were close enough to 60 that there was extensive get-to-60 concessions on health care and financial reform (watering them both down considerably).

      But the filibuster also killed DREAM, Disclose, cap and trade etc... during the 111th.

      In the 112th the majority was much further from 60. And the Senate didn't do (or even attempt) much of anything. I expect 113th to be pretty much the same. 53-55 seat majorities will be more common than 58-60.

  4. Someone should check earlier pushes for filibuster reform and see if earlier generations of senior senators opposed it.

  5. Since the 60-vote-Senate was created in 2009 the Senate Democrats have now spent 4 years watching their majority get turned upside-down by this new norm. It’s tempting to say that if they don’t support change now, then they never will. 60 is the new normal.

    But maybe the 60-vote-Senate is (only) tolerable under divided government. And it’ll go away once one party has unified control.

    I’m struck by the extent to which exploitation of this obscure norm has sabotaged our democracy. But it’s clear the Senators stuck in this dysfunctional institution aren’t willing to fix it.

  6. Interestingly, it seems to me that a lot of the most important prospective legislation for either party can be passed through budget reconciliation, because while there are significant social policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, those tend to be fought at the state legislative or state and federal judicial level rather than the federal legislative level. The following are all primarily budgetary and could be passed in a way that doesn't violate budget reconciliation rules: cap and trade or a carbon tax, raising taxes on the wealthy, tax cuts for the wealthy, closing tax loopholes, reforming the corporate tax code, cutting discretionary spending, cutting Medicare, etc. These form the highest competing priorities of the two major political parties, and they are almost entirely budgetary and could be made to be deficit-reducing. A lot of the remainder consists of stuff like immigration reform that is plausibly possible to pass with a bipartisan consensus. Obamacare repeal makes up the major Republican initiative that is impossible to pass under reconciliation, so I could see Republicans doing their best to bypass or unilaterally change the Senate rules under unified government if it gives them that opportunity, but it would probably also be possible to neuter Obamacare by defunding the insurance subsidies through reconciliation. Gun control and sexual orientation/identity civil rights issues would be the major exception for Democrats here, though the latter is fought primarily at the state level. Social security reform isn't allowed under budget reconciliation, but I find it unlikely that there is a strong political incentive for either party to enact significant changes to social security without bipartisan cover within the next decade or so. Executive and judicial nominations are a bigger problem, because it is absolutely necessary that nominees be confirmed for the functioning of the US government, and that is where Republican obstruction in the Senate has hit hardest. So it's not completely clear to me that the incentives line up for a majority party fighting for filibuster reform under unified control but not under divided control, because you still have the nominations issues in divided government, while the majority party can use existing rules to pass some really major legislative initiatives under unified control of government.

  7. And caucus leadership matters too. I’m not looking forward to a Majority Leader Durbin or Schumer, but... I think either would be more willing to use, not just half-heartedly threaten to use, the Constitutional Option.

    Reid is only 73 now, but his wife is fighting breast cancer. He may decide to retire after 2014, depending on the results. But I’d say the odds are he stays and runs again in 2016. If he does and he’s reelected with a Dem Presidential landslide in 2016, what does he do? I don't think he'll ever use the Constitutional option. He will have been Majority Leader for a decade--maybe he steps aside for younger leadership. And/or gets polite hints from President-Elect Clinton, who wants Senate reform but also a louder, more assertive, less shy Senate advocate for her agenda.

    In any case, I think real reform can only happen in Jan. 2017. The dynamics after a mid-term are likely going to be too mixed up for Dems to be confident enough to do it then. If they hold on to the Senate but lose a few seats and *don’t* take the House, the prospect for the Constitutional option will be worse than this year. If they hold on and *do* take the House, they might well muster 51 votes, but the spectre of the entire GOP caucus going insane and pulling out all the stops to block and delay every last motion, even if only chimerical, will prevent Dems from pulling the trigger.

    1. I would think every person who watches CSPAN2 would want a LOUDER Majority Leader....Harry Reid is barely audible!


    2. And of course GOP leadership too. When do they finally shitcan McConnell? After a 2016 drubbing? (Ohh the map looks good:,_2016)
      Two new Senate leaders would make reform much easier, especially if it's a less experienced parliamentarian on the GOP side, and their numbers are low.

      And who would it be? Cornyn? Probably, by inertia and default. No one else would really want it just then. And there are no other standout candidates. Going by seniority: Hatch? Cochran? Grassley? Shelby? McCain? No, no, no, and no. (Hatch could do it fine, but likely has NO desire.) Same for Inhofe, Roberts, Sessions. Now, Susan Collins would be a fascinating possibility, especially with a President Clinton, but I don't think she could navigate it well and she wouldn't have the votes. Lamar! ? His time has passed. Butters? Um, noo. Coburn? Too weird. Thune? Hmmm, possibly as a Face. Corker? Meh. And the only current freshman I think could make a play and really do it is Blunt. Could happen.

    3. Shitcan McConnell?

      I don't know if he would be an effective majority leader. But he seems to be doing a hell of a job as minority leader.

      McConnell has done a fantastic job of elevating the (disruptive) power of the GOP minority. He's established the 60-vote-Senate and done a masterful job of walking the line of being just disruptive enough that the Dems can't really do anything, but just cooperative enough that Reid won't actually make a change.

    4. McConnell has also done a great job of stealthy ignoring, exploiting, and then transforming the norms of a very norm-based institution.

      McConnell created a perpetual super-majority requirement. AND when the majority leader has the temerity to suggest that the majority should be able to advance legislation or approve nominations once in a while - McConnell successfully paints it as a mad power grab. It's a crime against their venerable traditions! Then gets him to back down.

      McConnell is an evil genius.

    5. Swain: I agree with your analysis of McConnell. But if the GOP loses a couple more 2014 races because of Tea Party overreach, a la O'Donnell, Angle, Buck, Akin, Mourdock, and then loses a handful more in 2016 straight up (Kirk? Ayotte? Toomey? Johnson?), he really shouldn't keep his job.

    6. Is it me? Every time I hear Reid speak, all I can think of is this guy:

  8. @Andrew Long - Oh, I agree there.

    Is it the job of the majority/minority leader to get colleagues elected? Is that something Reid is good at or gets credit for?

    The GOP has had an electing Senators problem. I just don't that McConnell is the problem there.


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