There’s more than one kind of filibuster reform

Updated
 
Some ideas work better in the movies.
Some ideas work better in the movies.
Associated Press

For those looking for institutional Senate reforms, including revisions to the chamber’s filibuster rules, there’s good news: most of the Senate majority seems less focused on whether to make changes, and more focused on which changes to make.

Senators are not without options. Eliminating filibusters on motions to proceed, for example, seems to be one of the more obvious changes that enjoys a fair amount of Democratic support. There’s also talk of eliminating filibusters on confirmation votes, and even a mechanism in which the filibuster threshold would drop incrementally, while debate continued.

But there’s one idea that seems to generate more chatter than any other.

The next time a minority of senators find something the majority supports to be objectionable, they may be required to take the Senate floor and explain just why they object. And when they’re done with that, they’ll have to keep talking, and talking, and talking.

The most persistent advice that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he gets from liberals he meets across the country is as simple as it is frustrating: “Make them actually filibuster!”

Under the status quo, there aren’t literal filibusters. The minority routinely blocks up-or-down votes, creating an environment in which mandatory supermajorities are required for literally every bill of consequence, but there is no one on the Senate floor, trying to talk a bill to death, along the lines of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Many Democrats want to change that. “You have to present your case,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told the Huffington Post. “If you think there should be more debate, then you’ve got to debate. You’ve got to present your case before your colleagues, before the American public. If you haven’t got the guts to do that, then you shouldn’t stand in the way of the majority vote.”

The idea is to create a series of incentives – or in this case, disincentives. If the Senate minority wants to block a majority-rule vote on a bill, they’re going to have to work for it, standing on the Senate floor and making their case. If it’s an especially popular piece of legislation, the minority would be in the unpleasant position of talking endlessly against something that enjoys broad public support.

The support for this kind of reform is perfectly understandable, but there’s room for skepticism.

Jonathan Bernstein has been writing about this for a few years now, and he had a good piece on the debate yesterday.

The idea that Republicans would surrender if only they were forced to stand up and fight for their views is, well, totally divorced from the reality of what politicians are like. Republicans – any minority party, on almost any issue – would be very happy to hold the floor indefinitely. It’s free publicity for them. And they care little that nothing else can get done in the meantime. They’re in the minority; the things they want aren’t going to happen anyway!

That’s why it’s the majority party that benefits from avoiding live, talking, filibusters. Indeed, under current rules, the majority could force a live filibuster at any time; there’s just no point in doing it. The demise of live filibusters isn’t what caused the explosion of filibusters, and forcing live filibusters by itself isn’t going to end anything.

It’s unsatisfying, forcing real filibusters is not without meaningful drawbacks.

The one reform idea I happen to like best – lowering the threshold from 60 to 57 or 55 – hasn’t garnered as much support, but I’m still hoping it’ll be added to the mix.

Senate and Filibuster

There's more than one kind of filibuster reform

Updated