Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Harry Reid and Senate Reform

Brian Beutler has the latest on Harry Reid's current plans, or at least his current rhetoric.
Reid’s decision to eschew significant reforms to Senate filibuster rules at the beginning of the current Congress — and his continuing reluctance to revisit those rules despite recent filibusters of cabinet nominees — angers allies both on and off of Capitol Hill.

But he continues to approach the issue cautiously.

“I’m not going to do anything now, precipitously,” he said. “But I’m looking at this very closely…. We’re going to fill that job. Cordray is there now. He’s going to get a vote.”

Reid wasn’t able to explain why he believes (or claims to believe) Cordray will ultimately be confirmed. But he alluded to the possibility that he may pursue a rules change mid-session.

Good reporting, but I'll make two points about it.

1. One of the pieces here is that Harry Reid has to educate everyone, contrary to the conventional wisdom pushed in large part by reformers over the past few years, to the reality that the rules can be changed during a session of Congress. Probably necessary if he wants to get buy-in from editorial boards and good government types. As is really demonstrating just how bad the problem is in ways they can understand -- remember that numerous reporters claimed that the Hagel nomination was the first to be filibustered during Obama's presidency, despite the plain fact that every nomination has been filibustered during Obama's presidency.

2. Don't assume that Harry Reid has a lot of autonomy here. Even Speakers of the House must be responsive to their conference, but Senate Majority Leaders really just don't wield all that much influence. They are servants of their caucus, not masters of it. Reid can't do anything at all here without 51 of the 55 Democrats, and if (again) he wants to keep the good government folks on his side, he's going to need all or almost all of those with him. And if they don't want to? He has very few ways to influence them.

Worth repeating: the bottom line here is that almost every Democrat would prefer an outcome that allows most nominations to pass by simple majority vote while leaving the basic filibuster rules intact. They probably prefer eliminating the filibuster to complete and total obstruction...but there's almost certainly some point at which partial obstruction is more acceptable for them than reform. And that's a reasonable position!

And of course, the level of obstruction, while unprecedented and thoroughly unjustified, is still not total. And it's not even clear what the level is at any particular time.

All of which makes Harry Reid's job a lot more difficult than it might seem.


  1. "remember that numerous reporters claimed that the Hagel nomination was the first to be filibustered during Obama's presidency, despite the plain fact that every nomination has been filibustered during Obama's presidency."

    Since the press is so dumb and blind Harry should have made it obvious. He should have provoked more Hagel-like confrontations starting four years ago. Why hasn't he?

    I feel like someone's pulling a trick on me. First they say there's no point in pushing hard on nominees, because it won't be enough to break the filibuster, and it will waste time. Then they say that since we didn't push hard the press has no idea there was a filibuster in the first place.

    So now we have to start pushing hard to get their attention, because the last four years were wasted. And then just when you think everyone has finally woken up, there's a new excuse: now there's no point in pushing hard because not enough Dems support filibuster abolishment, and it would divide the caucus.

    How long until someone comes along and tells me that Diane Feinstein doesn't realize how big a problem filibusters are, because no one read to her from a phone book? If only we had forced the Reps to filibuster more obviously to convince Diane Feinstein! Oh well, that's another four years. . . .

  2. I echo Chaz' frustration against what this obstructionist GOP Senate has wrought over the last five years.

    In contrast to Reid's seeming timidity on this issue, Jonathan, and what seems to me a tepid defense of his behavior on your part, your claim that *now*, five years into the Obama administration, after years of inaction and a significantly weakened federal judiciary, cabinet, and executive branch leadership at all levels, a media-educating approach must be pursued? And that fence-sitting Democrats of the Senate must be carefully persuaded to support a change because of their sensitivity to tradition?

    I've worked on a cattle ranch before, and I'm familiar with the odor of bovine effluent. Take a guess as to what this position reminds me of?

  3. I was under the impression that the parliamentary method of getting rid of the filibuster could only do that, end the filibuster, not mend it. The chair rules that a particular attempt to filibuster is not in order, and if a simple majority supports that parliamentary ruling, the filibuster is dead. But, inherently, there can't be a vote to substitute some reformed procedure for the filibuster that is in the rules now. The ruling from the chair can only be voted up or down, it's not designed to allow changing a rule, just ending or upholding it. The filibuster we have now either goes completely, or stays completely intact.

    An actual rules change, that would allow a reformed filibuster to replace what we have now, requires a 2/3 vote, as I understand it. I can't see 2/3 agreeing to any meaningful reform, so it seems to me that the parliamentary procedure is the only option at this point. But if that is so, isn't it true that the filibuster can only be ended at this point, not mended?

    1. I believe, but I'm not fully certain, that you are correct. However, if the Dems had a convincing threat that they were going to impose reform, it's possible that they could then negotiate a compromise package.

      But it's possible that you could just impose a reformed rule by majority vote...someone more expert than I am in the intricacies of the rules would need to answer that one.


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