Reforming the Senate at a Snail’s Pace

As the clock runs out on the dysfunctional 112th Congress, few have been impressed by its paltry record and balky performance. But pardon my glee: December has been a great month for students of Congress. First, the House leadership was handed a blistering defeat on its “Plan B” to resolve the fiscal cliff. Next, while their leaders were meeting to negotiate an 11th hour of the 12th month fiscal cliff deal, eight senators unveiled a bipartisan proposal to head off a Democratic threat to change the rules by majority vote. When it rains, it pours!

The reform package—addressing “talking filibusters” and filibusters on procedural motions – deserves a bit more attention. And it deserves an appropriate historical illustration: To the right, a 1928 Chicago Tribune cartoon that features not the talking filibuster…but a sleeping one. Seems that talking filibusters might have been few and far between even back then.

Ezra Klein and Jon Bernstein have detailed the proposed changes and weighed in here and here, as has Steve Smith by tweet here and here. Since then, a coalition of nearly fifty liberal groups has rejected the proposal out of hand as watered down reform. To these several perspectives on the McCain-Levin plan, I would add the following thoughts:

First, these are at best incremental reforms. The majority leader would essentially gain the right to set the Senate’s agenda by majority vote, as a four-hour debate limit would be imposed on the motion to proceed. But the majority leader would pay a price for that new power: He would lose his power to block amendments (by “filling the tree”) and the minority bill manager and leader would be newly guaranteed an amendment each upon consideration of a legislative measure. (The majority leader, it seems, might still be able to fill the tree after the guaranteed amendments are dispensed with.) This change leaves untouched the sixty-vote threshold for invoking cloture on the measure or other amendments, similar to the plans of Democratic reformers. In short, the change tries to address the grievances of both the majority (by circumventing filibusters of the motion to proceed) and the minority (by creating and guaranteeing amendment opportunities).

Second, the incremental nature of the reforms is not accidental. Ezra has a point when he argues that this is “filibuster reform for people who don’t want to reform the filibuster.” Still, the incremental nature of the proposal strikes me as the price of negotiating procedural change in a legislative body whose rules already advantage the minority party: The majority gets a little only by giving a little. The barrier to reform is entrenched in the Senate’s cloture rule, given the supermajority required for ending filibusters of proposals that curtail minority rights. A Senate majority could circumvent that barrier by going nuclear with 51 votes, but that strategy is not cost-free. To be sure, reformers claim to have 51 votes for a reform-by-ruling move. But it’s not clear to me yet that the majority would be willing to pay the accompanying costs of weathering the minority’s response to going nuclear.

Third, the rules address leaders’ interests more so than those of the rank and file. Some of the proposed changes are aimed at time management. For example, with the consent of the majority and minority leaders and a bipartisan handful of senators , the cloture process is sped up markedly. Similarly, the three debatable steps required to get to conference are condensed to a single motion (albeit one still subject to sixty votes if the minority objects). Other proposed changes alleviate the minority leader from objecting on his colleagues’ behalf, undermining individual senators’ ability to threaten to filibuster without actually showing up. Then again, there’s no enforcement mechanism in the proposal: Senators would be counting on the minority leader to play by the new rules and to abandon his practice of lodging objections on behalf of his absent colleagues. It’s fair to be skeptical that such informal reforms would ever stick.

Fourth, I think there’s promise in the proposal’s directive to the presiding officer to put questions to a (majority) vote when opponents no longer seek to debate a bill. I share skeptics’ views that majorities might rarely want to hold the minority’s feet to the fire to wear down the opposition and that minorities might at times relish the spotlight while holding the floor. But the proposal strikes me as a potentially valuable chance to see if the change would make a difference. If approved, the McCain-Levin proposal would be adopted as a standing order of the Senate for just the upcoming Congress, providing a testing ground for this version of the talking filibuster. (Standing orders are typically approved opening day by unanimous consent; would there be such consent for McCain-Levin or another negotiated proposal?)

Finally, it may be that incremental procedural change is all that a polarized Senate can agree on—especially if some Democrats are skittish about changing the rules by majority vote. Granted, majority senators won’t agree to the plan if it’s perceived as empowering the minority, not the majority, as Senator Harkin has suggested. Nor should they. In that case, an incremental package may be more than a polarized Senate can agree on—leaving the nuclear option as the only avenue for Democrats seeking to rein in the excesses of the Senate minority’s parliamentary rights.