In early 2011, there was a concerted Senate Democratic effort to reform institutional rules and curtail Republican filibuster abuses. Six months ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a traditionalist who's resisted changes to way the chamber operates, expressed regret for leaving filibuster rules intact.
With that in mind, in 2013, change appears increasingly inevitable.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pledged on Wednesday to change the rules of the Senate so that the minority party has fewer tools to obstruct legislative business.In his first post-election press conference, the Nevada Democrat said he wouldn't go so far as to eliminate the filibuster, which requires 60 votes for the chamber to enter and exit the amendment and debate process. But in remarks meant to preview a more combative approach during the next session, he warned Republicans that obstructionism as a tactic won't be tolerated -- or as technically feasible.
Reid added, "I think the rules have been abused, and we are going to work to change them. We will not do away with the filibuster, but we will make the Senate a more meaningful place. We are going to make it so we can get things done."
For those who believe the Senate is broken and dysfunctional, and that institutional reforms are absolutely critical, this is certainly encouraging, though it's unclear exactly what kind of reforms Reid has in mind. We also don't yet know whether other Senate Democrats are eager to pursue reforms, though early indications are quite positive, and the fact that the caucus is going to be more progressive in 2013 than 2012 is also a good sign.
That said, there are two broader angles that are worth considering as the process begins to unfold.
The first is that the need for reforming Senate filibuster rules shouldn't even be controversial. Looking at the status quo, the Senate wasn't designed to work this way; it didn't use to work this way; and it's quite obvious that it can't work this way.
Here's a historical tidbit to keep in mind: from 1917 to 1972, a grand total of 82 cloture motions were filed. In this Congress, which began just last year, there have been 109. In other words, there have been far more cloture motions filed in the last two years than the Senate saw in the half-century between World War I and Watergate -- and this Congress isn't even done yet.
The most cloture motions filed in American history were filed by Republicans in the 110th Congress (2007 to 2008). The second most were filed by Republicans in the 111th Congress (2009 to 2010). And the third most filed by Republicans in the 112th Congress (2011 to 2012).
The question isn't whether reforms are needed; the question is why the reforms haven't been implemented already. To reiterate a point we discussed earlier in the year, a system in which supermajorities are mandatory for literally every vote of any consequence not only makes it impossible for the legislative branch to function effectively, it creates what is, in effect, a governmental crisis in which the abandonment of norms prevents policymakers from responding to national needs.
That said, I know what some of you are thinking. "But, Steve," you're saying, "would it really make a difference? If the Republicans are still in the majority in the House, as they're likely to be for the next decade thanks to a brutal redistricting process, there's no real point to having a functioning Senate capable of passing bills, only to see them die on the other side of Capitol Hill."
And if that is what you're thinking, you have a point. Even if the Senate returns to something resembling majority rule, and terrific legislation suddenly starts clearing the chamber, the lower chamber is still dominated by the most far-right caucus in modern American history.
So why pursue Senate reform at all? For one thing, because changes would presumably be permanent and the United States needs a functioning Senate, not just in the next Congress, but for the indefinite future.
For another, there are some things the Senate does that the House has nothing to do with. Consider this reminder from Jonathan Bernstein, for example.
For all the talk about the fiscal cliff and the economy, what's really going to make a difference as to whether Barack Obama's second term is a success are his judicial nominations. If Obama's accomplishments are really going to last -- and if liberal reforms are to succeed over time -- doing everything possible to reverse decades of conservative efforts to reshape the judiciary needs to be a top priority.Democrats need a judicial nominations strategy, and they need it now.Judicial nominations below the Supreme Court were one of Barack Obama's biggest first-term failures. Now, with a second term and 54 Democratic Senators (plus Angus King), the Democrats have a chance to correct it.
Reforming the way the Senate operates would go a long way towards making this happen.