Institutional reforms could ‘shut down the Senate’

Updated
 
Institutional reforms could 'shut down the Senate'
Institutional reforms could 'shut down the Senate'

When it comes to institutional reforms in the tragically dysfunctional U.S. Senate, there’s a growing sense that some changes are inevitable, though the scope of the reforms and the level of support remains entirely unclear.

Politico reports today that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is increasingly focused on two ideas: (1) eliminating filibusters on motions to proceed, which seems like a no-brainer, and (2) forcing the filibustering minority to literally stand on the floor and try to talk a bill to death.

There’s ample room for debate on the merits of the reforms, whether they’d be effective, and whether they go far enough, but how the reforms are adopted is also likely to matter.

Republicans are threatening even greater retaliation if Reid uses a move rarely used by Senate majorities: changing the chamber’s precedent by 51 votes, rather than the usual 67 votes it takes to overhaul the rules.

“I think the backlash will be severe,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the conservative firebrand, said sternly. “If you take away minority rights, which is what you’re doing because you’re an ineffective leader, you’ll destroy the place. And if you destroy the place, we’ll do what we have to do to fight back.”

“It will shut down the Senate,” the incoming Senate GOP whip, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, told POLITICO. “It’s such an abuse of power.”

Coburn and Cornyn are, of course, referring to the so-called “nuclear option,” which senators like Coburn and Cornyn helped come up with and used to support.

But even putting hypocrisy aside, there’s a certain oddity to the Republican threats. The GOP minority has abused Senate rules in ways unseen in American history, rendering the entire institution a dysfunctional mess, and creating mandatory supermajorities for the first time since the Senate was created over two centuries ago.

And if Democrats take steps to make policymaking slightly more efficient, then Republicans will “shut down the Senate”? The GOP threat is that the future will abandon the bipartisan comity and constructive process the nation has enjoyed in recent years?

Wait, it gets worse.

As Greg Sargent noted, Coburn’s complaints about taking away “minority rights” really don’t make sense.

The package of reforms most likely to be adopted would not take away the ability of the minority to block legislation supported by a majority of the Senate.

That’s right: While the reforms currently being considered would force filibustering into the open and end the ability to filibuster before proceeding to debate and in other situations, they would not – repeat, not – mean an end to the filibuster on ending debate and having a final vote on any bill. In other words, these reforms would simply remove ways of using the filibuster explicitly as a tactic to gum up the works by stalling legislation, without altering the underlying ability to block legislation with a minority of the Senate. It would fundamentally remain a 60-vote institution where majority rule doesn’t automatically prevail. Indeed, some liberals think this means the reforms aren’t good enough.

That’s absolutely right, and I’d add just one related thought.

For Senate Republicans, “minority rights,” which they suddenly take seriously after four consecutive losing election cycles, means the ability of 41 senators to defeat literally any bill or nomination is sacrosanct and inviolable. After all, it’s one of the defining features that makes the Senate different from the House.

But this assumption is at odds with history. The Senate functioned quite well for 200 years while remaining a majority-rule institution. It differed from the House, not because of mandatory supermajorities that didn’t exist up until very recently, but because members serve six-year terms (instead of two) and represent entire states (instead of districts).

What reformers have in mind is not to break the Senate or introduce radical changes to the staid institution, but ultimately, are motivated by the opposite motivation – reforms would bring the Senate closer to the way it was designed to function, and used to function before Republicans abandoned institutional norms and abused Senate traditions.

The chamber is broken, and those who broke it are now vowing to fight those trying to put things right. It should be quite a showdown.

Senate, Filibuster and Harry Reid

Institutional reforms could 'shut down the Senate'

Updated