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Assessing Senate reform proposals, Part 2

By Jonathan Bernstein

Two more proposals to consider:

Scott Lilly/Center for American Progress

Lilly, a former senior congressional staffer, has two suggested reforms (pdf). One I find intriguing is to set strict time limits on appropriations bills, modeled on the kind of limited debate already in place on reconciliation bills. Since in theory these bills are limited to funding programs that must be authorized in other legislation, one could argue that this reform would still leave minorities able to filibuster those authorization bills, which in theory set policy. Does that argument hold? Funding levels are also a form of policy, perhaps more important than authorization, since programs have been known to continue to be funded well after authorization ran out. There's also the question of what would count as an appropriations bill. Reconciliation began as a bill that was supposed to implement only already-passed budget resolutions, but of course reconciliation bills have been major policy vehicles since Ronald Reagan used reconciliation to pass much of his agenda in 1981. Rules do exist about what's supposed to be included in an appropriations bill, but those rules have been known to be broken. If the Senate was going to in effect create 12 new protected bills a year (plus supplementals!), it would have to get the rules just right, or else it would be doing a lot more than just expediting appropriations.

Lilly's second proposal is to expedite and eliminate filibusters on nominations (he doesn't say, but presumably both executive branch and judicial nominations, although his discussion is just about executive branch nominees):

No senator should be allowed to hold up the confirmation of a nominee for more than a matter of weeks. Committees should be discharged of further consideration of a nominee after a period of two months unless the committee formally votes for further delay based on the fact that it has received insufficient information to reach a conclusion. After 30 days, consideration of confirmation should be in order without unanimous consent, and debate on the confirmation should be limited to a reasonable period -- for example, four hours.

This one, I suspect, has no chance of passing, as is. It runs right up against senators' individual influence (by presumably killing off holds), as well as the ability of a minority to moderate a president's judicial selections.


Political scientists Jonathan Krasno and Gregory Robinson floated a multipart proposal earlier this year. The provisions?

  • Instead of a fixed 3/5 of all Senators, cloture to be invoked by 3/5 of all Senators present and voting.

  • Schedule cloture votes with "little delay or warning [to] force a filibuster's supporters to be constantly at the ready to fend off cloture whether a vote comes at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m.

  • Dramatically reduce delays in other ways, for example in postcloture debate time.

By itself, the first provision is just a slight reduction in the number for cloture, similar to Sen. Bob Bennett's call for defeating cloture with only 41 affirmative votes, as opposed to needing 60 to invoke it. The second proposal? Krasno is a friend of mine, and he's a clever guy, but I think this is too clever by half. I can't imagine senators agreeing to it; they would claim that it would violate both the comity and the dignity of the Senate, and I think that's quite right. A majority leader who used this power aggressively could essentially kill off the filibuster entirely. In fact (if extended beyond cloture to other votes) majorities could pass bills that couldn't quite muster even a majority by waiting until the correct set of senators was available, with the majority sending interns to spy on senators to make sure they actually got on the plane.

I do like the last suggestion, however. I don't want to eliminate solo or small-group filibusters, but I don't mind reducing the cost to the majority in going through what it takes to defeat them. Along these lines, I didn't include it as a formal proposal from a senator, but Frank Lautenberg has a proposal to force "live" debating (which I think is misguided, because it would hurt the majority) but also to force "live" use of postcloture time, which I do think is a good idea (although my impression is that postcloture time is often yielded back, anyway).

One more post, in which I'll sum up the ideas I like, and comment briefly on the chances for something actually happening.

-- Jonathan Bernstein blogs about American politics, political institutions, and democracy at A Plain Blog About Politics, and you can follow him on Twitter.

By Multiplatform Editor  |  June 2, 2010; 5:18 PM ET
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