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The Senate doesn't work

Jeff Merkley -- who is, in fact, a senator -- explains:

There’s no question that the procedure itself is dysfunctional. I’m working with a colleague to come up with some ideas to improve that. It’s going to be a long-term project, because to change the rules around here takes 67 votes. But we’ve come up with some ideas. What if appropriations bills could be moved through an expedited process, with a timeline that would take two days for a vote rather than two weeks? And you could do the same thing with nominations. Right now, there are still hundreds of unfilled Administration positions, because the Republicans can obstruct them and eat up a lot of floor time, and it’s hamstrung these federal agencies. So maybe we could get some of the things we do expedited, with an up or down vote, even if it’s a super-majority, so we can clear the decks for a longer consideration of policy bills, because a lot of this is about time. And you can do that while protecting minority rights.

And then we’re thinking that we could sort of time-release a change to the cloture rules. Something where they don’t take effect until years down the road, or at a time when the parties are more equal in power. That wouldn’t look like short-term advantage while eventually moving away from the dysfunction. It’s worth having that discussion. But it’s going to take a while.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 18, 2009; 4:53 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: The case for moving forward


It's a feature, not a bug. I think we've adequately proven that one-party legislation is lousy irrespective of which party it is. What's so bad about requiring at least a modicum of bipartisan consensus?

Posted by: theradicalmoderate | December 18, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Blaming the rules is the last refuge of scoundrels.

Posted by: bmull | December 18, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Hell, TAKE short-term advantage.

The Republicans are abusing procedural rules to destroy the ability of the Senate to legislate. They are playing hardball, and to hell with the consequences. The Democrats need to play to win, just as hard, if they are to succeed.

Posted by: adamiani | December 18, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse

It doesn't take 67 senators to change the rules. I didn't realize Merkley was so timid. The nuclear option only takes 51. Also, every congress is entitled to their own rules set by a simple majority. The constitution makes it clear that rules from a previous session do not bind the current session. It doesn't take a supermajority to run the Senate, just a majority with some guts.

Posted by: marvyT | December 18, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

I don't believe there's any chance of this until the Democrats -- in the minority -- demonstrate a willingness to use the same set of rules to obstruct the Republican agenda. Otherwise, where's the incentive for Republicans to ever concede to this? When they're in the minority the Democrats effectively need 60 solid votes to get anything done, but as we saw in the Bush years, when Republicans are in the majority a simple 51-vote is usually sufficient. Without some Democratic obstructionism to match the Republican's there will never be any incentive to make these changes -- yet another way in which the Dems' infuriating willingness to roll over for the Bush agenda is coming back to bite them.

Posted by: jasonsugg | December 18, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Kill the Bill. There is no rockstar up for vote in 2010. None of your 20 somethings that spend more on a saturday eve at the Bar than the Health Insurance premium (that they don't buy)will be out at the voting boths next year. Kill it before you lose your majority.

Posted by: jercary | December 18, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

The Senate does work. Ezra is simply wrong. Good policy will get the votes to pass important legislation.

Ezra is just upset that his preferred bill is not good enough to pass. I understand this is a hit to his entire worldview and an attack on his ideas. People that are smarter and far more experienced than Ezra are trying to make the bill better and they are getting close. I, for one, hope they succeed and again show that this is a good process, not a broken one as Ezra suggests it is.

Posted by: lancediverson | December 18, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

You are correct, Sir. The Senate, indeed, doesn't work. According to Rasmussen, only 34% polled believe this bill is better than doing nothing, and yet, this bill may pass.

Wha's with THAT??

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | December 18, 2009 6:52 PM | Report abuse

The progression of HCR proves that the quality of legislation has nothing to do with its passage. To those who tout arbitrary levels of bipartisanship, realize that at any point in the past 6 months, a group of Republicans could've gone to Harry Reid and demanded every single cost control they could think of in exchange for their support, and he would've agreed. That point's clear as day. Even now, any group of 1-4 GOP senators would get whatever they wanted in exchange for their votes on cloture. The GOP just preferred to obstruct and whine rather than compromise.

Posted by: etdean1 | December 18, 2009 8:16 PM | Report abuse

memo from w.h. communications office: We are gratified that you are broadcasting our latest concept: the senate doesn't work and is undemocratic. Earlier today E.J. Dionne said the same on the Diane Rehm show. Hope others will follow. The special invites will go to you and not those clowns over at Kos. Let them spend xmas walking the malls. haha. R.G.

Posted by: truck1 | December 18, 2009 8:46 PM | Report abuse

""The progression of HCR proves that the quality of legislation has nothing to do with its passage.""

Anyone sufficiently cynical about politics has known this for a long time and accounts for that in their planning process... and that accounting did not happen when the HCR process starting.

Posted by: tyromania | December 19, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

To make the political institution of the Senate more effective, the requirement for 3/5 vote (60 senators) needed to end the filibuster has to be amended. This has been done in the past. There's no reason why this can't be done again. Senate rules state that one needs a 2/3 majority of present senators to alter Senate rules. If 77 senators are present at the time of a vote, then 51 affirmative votes are all that would be needed to change the Senate rules. Like Yglesias, I believe that health care is the easiest big ticket item that the Democrats could pass. If getting to 60 is this hard on an issue that all Democrats agree needs to be addressed, I really wonder about the other big ticket issues (climate change, financial regulation, etc.) that Obama campaigned on. The 67 vote threshold is always bandied about as a way to discourage senators from proposing rule changes. When in reality, changing the Senate isn't THAT difficult. Creating circumstances where 2/3 of present senators vote to pare down the cloture requirement from 60 to 58 or 55 would be a testament to majority leader Reid's planning abilities and his audacity to win.

Posted by: len2v | December 19, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

"to change the rules around here takes 67 votes."

True, but then not true at all. At the end of the day, whatever 51 senators decide to do gets done. Right now, 51 senators (at least) favor sticking with the 67 vote rule. When 51 senators decide not to, they probably don't have to. Wikipedia has an interesting article on the history of the nuclear option that lays out the legal basis, but essentially it is tied to an 1892 Supreme Court decision that the houses of Congress are parliamentary bodies, which implies rule making by majority vote. As it happens, Nixon was also involved in an advisory opinion that no Senate may constitutionally enact a rule that deprives a future Senate of the right to approve its own rules by the vote of a simple majority.

Posted by: pj_camp | December 19, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Reforming the filibuster is central to reforming American democracy. Anyone who wants to see significant progress in this country should care deeply about the filibuster. And I think it is the responsibility of every thoughtful blogger (hint..hint) to begin reporting on this issue more.

Posted by: orteleus | December 19, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

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