What's next for Senate reform?
Is Senate reform really dead? Filibuster expert Greg Koger had an important post over at the Monkey Cage yesterday arguing that, far from being a disaster for reformers, the demise of New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall's "constitutional option" at the beginning of the current Congress may wind up pushing Democrats to adopt a much better path to badly needed changes.
Briefly, there are three ways on the table to change Senate rules. To actually change those rules as written, Senators would need a large (two-thirds) supermajority, which is highly unlikely unless the minority party was afraid of one of the other two methods, each of which would impose simple majority rule in some way. The Udall plan would allow majorities do so in order to change the written rules, but only on the first day of a new Senate. However, as Koger says, rather than seeking change by altering the formal rules of the Senate, what majorities can do at any time is to change the interpretations of those rules. Koger:
A simpler and more direct approach is to directly impose reforms by precedent, or to use the threat of majoritarian reforms to bring the minority party to the bargaining table.
Koger argues that the deal between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell would still leave room for this approach. I'm not sure whether Reid and McConnell would agree...yet (and see the slightly different views of congressional rules expect Steven Smith). The strength of this approach, however, is that it is fully up to the majority to decide at what point minority obstruction is just too much. Right now, the plan seems to be for both sides to exercise restraint: for Republicans to avoid additional delay for delay's sake, but for Democrats to allow Republicans to offer more amendments, and to accept the true 60-vote Senate that didn't really exist before 2009. If Democrats eventually believe that GOP obstruction has broken the spirit of the agreement (as they likely will), then at any point Reid can simply say that it's void, and threaten to use "reform by precedent" to get things moving again.
In my view, the true 60-vote Senate is not going to prove stable in the long run, and the Senate will eventually either have to find some new set of rules and procedures that empower individuals, minority parties, and majority parties (here's my suggestion) -- or else it will wind up as a simple majority-party rule institution, like the House. It's possible, with the lower stakes for majority rule in the Senate that come with divided government, that the Reid-McConnell agreement might hold for at least the next two years. But I wouldn't count on it -- and reformers should keep pushing and keep working on devising good proposals, because there's every chance that the opportunity for change will happen much sooner than the Reid-McConnell agreement would have us believe.
| February 3, 2011; 12:02 PM ET
Categories: Senate Dems, filibuster
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