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Give Congress a Fish and it Will Eat for a Day...

This is really interesting:

In an apparent warning to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), some liberal Democrats have suggested a secret-ballot vote every two years on whether or not to strip committee chairmen of their gavels.

Baucus, who is more conservative than most of the Democratic Conference, has frustrated many of his liberal colleagues by negotiating for weeks with Republicans over healthcare reform without producing a bill or even much detail about the policies he is considering.

“Every two years the caucus could have a secret ballot on whether a chairman should continue, yes or no,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “If the ‘no’s win, [the chairman’s] out.

“I’ve heard it talked about before,” he added.

These procedural reforms might seem a bit arcane, but they're actually the most importance changes liberals -- or conservatives, or anyone else -- could make. Legislatively, the difference between passing a bill and changing the rules that make it so hard to pass bills is the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish. Right now, health-care reform is stuck in a congressional process that is explicitly and aggressively biased against large pieces of legislation. That's not only made the bill harder to pass, it's also made the bill worse: reformers began with a modest approach because the political system can't bear much in the way of change.

And that's true for any bill you might want to name. Climate bills. Social Security reforms. Tax policy. It's true for bills pushed by Democrats as well as bills pushed by Republicans. Some of these rules could, over time, get changed. The filibuster originally required the commitment of one solitary senator. Today it requires 40. The House Rules committee used to use a Dixiecrat majority to kill all legislation. Then Kennedy and Rayburn fought to expand the committee and end its role as a cemetery for social change.

The problem, of course, is that changing procedural rules is hard to do, and no one really wants to expend political capital on arcane parliamentary battles. Presidents don't take office promising to make it easier for future presidents to make a difference in the lives of voters. They take office promising to make a difference in the lives of voters. So there's very rarely much appetite for huge fights over changes in congressional procedure.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 30, 2009; 11:57 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Comments

In the words of John Dingell, "I'll let you write the substance... and you let me write the procedure, and I'll screw you every time."

Posted by: CarlBentham | July 30, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Does your "editor" now ban cussing in comments? What's up with this moderation?

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | July 30, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Along these lines, would you care to enlighten your readership about just what Rule 22 (which contains the cloture rules) means?

Here's the interesting part of the text:

"2. Notwithstanding the provisions of rule II or rule IV or any other rule of the Senate, at any time a motion signed by sixteen Senators, to bring to a close the debate upon any measure, motion, other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, is presented to the Senate, the Presiding Officer, or clerk at the direction of the Presiding Officer, shall at once state the motion to the Senate, and one hour after the Senate meets on the following calendar day but one, he shall lay the motion before the Senate and direct that the clerk call the roll, and upon the ascertainment that a quorum is present, the Presiding Officer shall, without debate, submit to the Senate by a yea-and-nay vote the question:

"Is it the sense of the Senate that the debate shall be brought to a close?" And if that question shall be decided in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn -- except on a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules, in which case the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting -- then said measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, shall be the unfinished business to the exclusion of all other business until disposed of."

So: to end debate on a garden-variety bill takes the acquiescence of 60 Senators, period. But to end debate on a motion to change Senate rules requires 2/3 of those *present and voting* which could be 67 Senators, or some lesser number.

But what's "the following calendar day but one" after the cloture motion has been submitted? Obviously, this is language that creates some sort of delay between the filing of a cloture motion, and the cloture vote itself, but how much of a delay, exactly? Even though I'm twice your age, Ezra, this phrasing is too arcane for my ear to decipher.

But one of its effects seems to be clear: the majority can't take advantage of some random moment when it constitutes 2/3 of those present, to move for a change in, say, the filibuster rule, then push through a cloture vote to end debate on that change in the rule. The minority gets some interval of time to rally the troops, get them to the Senate floor, and block the change. So a 2/3 majority is really needed, as best as I can tell.

Posted by: rt42 | July 30, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

LOL, it's nice to see you preparing your excuses in case Americans manage to escape the yoke of socialism again. Always it's a problem with the process or the actors -- never with the socialism.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | July 30, 2009 11:38 PM | Report abuse

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