Thursday, February 3, 2011

Senate Reform Update

I have a post up over at Plum Line talking about the likely next steps for Senate reform, following up on a must-read post, for those interested in the top, from Greg Koger over at the Monkey Cage. Senate reform junkies should also definitely read Steven Smith's recent comments about the Reid-McConnell deal and the demise of Opening Day reforms.

Briefly, my sense of things is that the 60-vote Senate is unstable, and that we'll get eventually get one of two things: either a House-like majority party rule, or some sort of revisions that retain influence for individual Senators and the minority party, but also give intense majorities a better chance to achieve their goals. Regular readers know that my preference is for the latter, but either way, I'm still very much convinced that the current situation won't hold long.

I should add one thing, although I've said this before: when change comes, it's most likely because a frustrated majority either acts unilaterally or convinces the minority to cut a deal lest they do so. That's a lot more likely to happen at least when the Senate and the presidency are in the same partisan hands, but especially during a sustained period of unified government. I've always thought that Ezra Klein's preference for time-delayed reform, in which everyone would agree to a new system but with a start date far enough into the future that no one would know which party would benefit, is just a non-starter. Change will come when the majority believes that it just can't live with the status quo, and when that happens they won't want to wait. On the other hand, it is helpful, I believe, for those who support a strong and independent Senate to work out some viable options now -- especially for those who don't want to see simple majority-party rule there.


  1. I don't think we will get reform. Instead, as you mentioned, when sufficiently threatened, some members of both parties will compromise to avoid change, i.e., like the "Gang of 14". I expect a similar compromise to be reached shortly on President Obama's nominations, because you are right, the current situation is not sustainable.

  2. One idea around the filibuster that I believe has value is the ability for a sizable minority of Senators to be able to say “Wait, we need to debate this issue some more.” Either to negotiate changes to the bill or to convince their fellow Senators to vote no. Unfortunately, Republicans in the last congress acted shamefully using the filibuster to obstruct legislation in a scorched earth strategy. And because it largely worked it will be used again by both parties.

    How about a cloture vote rule where instead of preventing a vote to pass the bill it instead delays that final vote and allows for additional floor time to debate the bill and negotiate changes. Of course this cloture rule can still be used to delay legislation, but it can't completely obstruct it. The additional floor time and the delay, perhaps for 2 weeks, would allow both sides to argue for and against the bill, discuss the issue with the people and the press, and give the Senators the opportunity to make their case.

    I'm guessing these kinds of delay tactics are already available in the myriad of Senate procedures, but changing the now toxic filibuster in this way preserves some minority power but gives the majority the opportunity to actually pass legislation.

  3. I don't think we will see any kind of filibuster reform except maybe some tinkering to make confirmation of executive and judicial appointments faster. What we'll get instead is more use of reconciliation. In contrast to Bernstein, I consider this a bad thing, and I don't see much downside to a majority rules Senate which is more or less what we had until the 1990s aside from the occasional filibuster of civil rights legislation which I'd be perfectly happy doing without.


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