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Should Democrats play hardball on committee chairmanships?

PH2009112302214.jpgHarry Reid gives Jay Rockefeller a hug.

In comments, Eerac writes:

There's a simple way the entire party can avoid being held hostage by a few centrists. Adopt Republican-style committee management and threaten to strip filibustering democrats of their chairmanships. Lieberman and Lincoln are both heading committees that mean a hell of a lot more to them than blocking health care reform. I mean, Lincoln couldn't even be bothered to update the healthcare page on her website.

I get that many Senators are reluctant to curb their own authority, but surely many senators, young and old, are starting to realize that they are continually going to be held hostage by a group of 5 or 6 centrists. How do supporters of climate change legislation expect to pass a meaningful bill if they can't stop centrists from filibustering?

The Democrats have a real opportunity here to use healthcare as an excuse to enact some meaningful procedural reform. If that reform then goes on to help climate change and/or financial reform legislation go through, the party will be in a lot better shape then if everything ends up floundering.

There's plenty of precedent for this: In 2004, Arlen Specter warned President Bush that a Supreme Court nominee who didn't consider Roe to be settled law would probably face a filibuster. In response, conservatives threatened to rip his chairmanship away. And I don't mean "conservatives" as in Rush Limbaugh. I mean conservatives as in leaks from then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office. Specter quieted down real fast after that, and he helped bring the anti-choice Roberts and Alito in for a smooth landing. (Later on, of course, Specter defected from the Republican Party rather than lose to a Republican primary challenger, but that's an argument against certain types of primary challenges, not threatening committee chairmanships to induce more party loyalty.)

I'm generally of the opinion that the president and the Senate leadership can do a lot less to wrangle restive moderates than people think. But playing hardball on committee assignments is certainly within their power. Harry Reid, however, is not favorably inclined toward practicing this kind of active Senate management, though I've never gotten a really good answer as to why he's so against it, or more to the point, so against threatening it.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 24, 2009; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Democrats , Senate  
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Comments

Lieberman in particular would appear to have lost any claim on any privileges accruing from his "membership" in the Democratic caucus. This is a man who ran against the candidate selected by the Democrats of Connecticut. If he now helps Republicans defeat legislation wanted by the vast majority of Democrats, we have to seriously ask the question: just what is he doing _for_ us?
He should have lost his chairmanship when he campaigned for McCain. The only argument against it at the time was that we need his vote to stop filibusters. If he doesn't vote for cloture, he's absolutely useless to the caucus.

And he's not even a Democrat!

Posted by: rick_desper | November 24, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

"though I've never gotten a really good answer as to why he's so against it"

The Dems could choose to become more responsive to the people who work for it or the constituents it represents; instead, it *chooses* to be held hostage by its most wavering members.

Process severely impacts the substance of what can get done. It's no mystery what's going on here: process is diffusing responsibility while serving big party donors and powerful interests. Party discipline by the GOP accomplishes the same goal

Posted by: Chris_ | November 24, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Hey, who's Leahy holding on to?

Posted by: leoklein | November 24, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

EERAC isn't the only one. I have been suggesting in the comments of several posts here and elsewhere that voting against ones own leadership especially on procedural votes on the main initiative of the leadership should be grounds for losing committee chairmanships and also plum committee assignments. After all, the leadership apportions those plum assignments. They should be able to take them away. It would be very amusing to see the conservadems find out how accommodating the repiglican leadership would be to this kind of heresy.

Posted by: srw3 | November 24, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Befor commenting on Senate rules, Ezra might want to take the time to learn some of them.

http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/RL30743.pdf

Changing committee assignements mid-congress is not as easy as he thinks (Frist's threats were largely hot air).

Reid, or more likely Durbin, will have an opportunity to strip Senators of their ranking minority slots in the 112th, if they have not already traded them in for chairmanships.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | November 24, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

With Lieberman it really seems like a no brainer, since Reid could probably cast the whole thing in a light that avoids setting much precedent (Lieberman's an independent, he has a long list of political indiscretions, even in his own state he's extremely unpopular among democrats). Plus getting tough with him would rather brilliantly vindicate Reid's earlier forgiveness and certainly bolster Reid's standing among core Democrats. My only cause for optimism is that, perhaps, the treat to strip Lieberman of his chairmanship is best left as a sort of last minute failsafe. If Reid puts it out their too far in advance, he'll probably get more push back from other centrist dems.

Posted by: eerac | November 24, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

On WoodbridgeVa1's point:

Lieberman would be easy. Simply throw him out of the Caucus. That would vacate his chair.

Others are more of a problem. That "elected by the whole Senate" is a tricky part. But if at the same time "50+" Dem Senators want to go to war against the ConservaDems they also take on the rules on the Filibuster, they might have an interesting battle.

I know Ezra has gone over the rules relating to changing the Filibuster levels, and that it's been a game of chicken that the parties haven't wanted to play in the past.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | November 24, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I assume most Senators are concerned about some vote yet to come, where they're the odd one out from a majority of the party. The reason the parties can't enforce the same discipline as they can in a parliamentary system is because ultimately each Senator is a lot more answerable to his or constiuents than to the party.

And when did Roberts and Alito overturn Roe v. Wade? I must have missed that.

Posted by: tomtildrum | November 24, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

I think that it's important not to characterize the 58th-60th votes in Congress as centrists. Being held hostage by centrists would mean being held hostage by people who represent the 49th-51st vote and hence speak, in a manner of speaking, for the center of the country on an issue.

In this case the process is being held hostage not by centrists but by conservatives, albeit Democratic conservatives. They may appear centrist in relation to their colleagues on the right but are not centrist in either technical or philosophical terms.

Posted by: micahdw | November 24, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

I've heard that Reid got to where he is by giving committee chairs a great deal of leeway. If true (and I admit this may be highly speculative), is it possible that getting tough on his members via committee assignments might undermine his own position as Senate majority leader? If enough committee chairs feel threatened--and they all might feel threatened if they can be punished for any single vote--they can vote for someone else to lead them and give them the freedom they want.

Self-interest can be a powerful motivator. The problem is that the failure to ge a halfway decent bill passed wouldn't be in the self interest of anyone in the Democratic Senate caucus.

Posted by: dasimon | November 24, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

The problem is Reid and Lieberman share a powerful common donor, and that donor has no interest in seeing Lieberman stripped of his chairmanship.

Posted by: bmull | November 24, 2009 8:12 PM | Report abuse

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