Wednesday, July 28, 2010

First Steps on Senate Reform

Jonathan Cohn reads the news that several senior and moderate Democrats do not support lowering the number required for cloture, and calls it a "Democratic Self-Destruct Sequence."  Cohn:
Of course, the filibuster empowers individual Democrats at the expense of the party as a whole. If it's sixty-votes-or-bust for the next few years, Democrats may be done passing major initiatives.
One of the problems with thinking about these things is that our eyes are often fixed on the present.  With the Democrats at 59 Senators, it's easy to focus on the threshhold of 60 votes for getting cloture, especially with Republicans using a rejectionist strategy pegged to requiring cloture to be achieved on every bill and nomination.  It's worth stepping back and remembering that Senate majorities are usually smaller, and often much smaller.  Needing 60 has certainly made a difference in this Congress, but the filibuster may be a whole lot less important in other Congresses (as in cases of divided government).  That doesn't mean that reform is a bad idea, but only to realize that for Democrats, this is more likely to be a 2013 problem than a 2011 problem.

That said, what I'd advise reformers to do is to concentrate their efforts on urging candidates to take strong stands on the issue.  When the time comes for action, which Democrats hope will be at the beginning of the 113th Congress in January 2013, they want as many Senators as possible to be committed to change.  The second thing I'd recommend is for reformers to prepare a package of relatively minor changes for January 2011, in order to demonstrate the point that each Senate can effect rules changes by majority vote.  Again, unless there's a surprise Democratic sweep this November, I wouldn't worry so much about pressing senior and marginal Democratic Senators on lowering the 60 vote needed for cloture.  Instead, I would try to find smaller streamlining procedural reforms that are relatively noncontroversial on their own (such as, perhaps, eliminating the filibuster on the motion to proceed, or changing for needing 60 for cloture to needing 41 to stop cloture) -- whatever procedures, no matter how insignificant they may be substantively, that marginal and senior Dems are willing to support -- and press to have a majority-rules vote on implementing them. 


  1. The thing is, nothing at all is going to happen absent some signficant public and/or Democratic base pressure on Democratic senators, and the only thing that the public/base is really going to connect with is "the Republicans shouldn't be allowed to just filibuster everything." No one is going to hold a letter writing campaign for a bunch of piddly changes.

  2. Sure. As I said, reformers should be pushing candidates to take strong positions. But they should also be pushing incumbent Senators (who aren't going to make major changes for next year either way given the political context) to do *something* by majority rule, to (further) establish the principle that you can do things that way.


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