Take a Little, Give a Little: The Senate’s Effort at Filibuster Reform

Today could have been the day when Senate Democrats went nuclear – reining in minority party abuse of the filibuster with a simple majority vote.  That would have been my Super Bowl.  Instead, the Senate is poised to adopt a bipartisan set of modest (many say, meager) changes to the Senate’s cloture rule.   More like the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, I say.

As many have noted (for starters, Ezra Klein here and Jonathan Bernstein here), the proposed changes to the Senate’s Rule 22 fall far short of what reformers had hoped for.  Much blame has been heaped on Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, and on a few senior Democrats, highlighting their resistance to abandoning the Senate’s sixty-vote threshold for bringing the chamber to a vote.  The reforms are modest, largely finding ways of speeding up the Senate once both parties have agreed on the matter at hand (for instance on the way to advancing a measure to the floor or after cutting off debate on a nomination).  Even if the changes may seem to many like small potatoes, I think there’s more to be gleaned from the Senate’s brush with reform.

First, take a little, give a little.  Today’s rule changes remind us that there is no free lunch when it comes to Senate reform.  That hurdle is built into Rule 22, given its requirement that 67 senators consent to a vote on efforts to reform Rule 22.  In the absence of majority willing to bear the costs of asserting the majority’s right to change its rules, Senate reform is necessarily bipartisan and incremental.  Reforms must secure the consent of the minority, or be packaged with changes judged equally important to the opposition.  (Recall that even when reformers reduced cloture to 60 votes in 1975, they paid a price: 67 votes would still be required to end debate on changing Rule 22.)  Today’s reforms allow a majority to circumvent filibusters of motions to proceed to legislative measures.  In return, the majority pays a price each time: The minority is guaranteed votes on two amendments, whereas previously recent leaders might have precluded all amendments by immediately “filling the tree.”  To be sure, this potentially dilutes the value of the rule change for the majority.   But concessions are dictated by the Senate’s inherited rules.  (And, of course, nothing is that simple when it comes to Senate rules; the majority may yet fill the tree, at least after the disposition of the minority’s amendments.)

Second, I suspect we might be underestimating the importance of a non-debatable motion to proceed for the majority party in a period of partisan polarization.  Judging from the increase in filibusters on the motions to proceed in recent years, minority parties have fought hard to keep bills off the floor that they oppose on policy or political grounds.   So long as the motion to proceed could be filibustered, majority and minority parties shared agenda-setting powers.  Today’s change grants the majority a slightly stronger hand in choosing the chamber agenda.  To be sure, the minority can still filibuster the bill and amendments beyond those newly guaranteed, but the reform undermines the minority’s ability to throw the majority off course.  Take immigration policy, for example.  Filibusters of the motion to proceed have kept the DREAM Act off the Senate floor in recent years.  Minority influence over the Senate’s agenda is diminished with today’s reform.

Third, these are leader-driven reforms, shaped by the unique burdens carried by the majority and (sometimes) minority leaders.  For example, the reforms speed up post-cloture debate on some judicial and executive branch nominations, and allow the chamber to hurry onto cloture votes on motions to proceed to legislative business when the minority offers a modicum of support.  No surprise that these housekeeping changes elicit little enthusiasm.   These changes don’t make it any easier for a majority to break sizable minority opposition.  And they potentially make it harder for rank and file senators to exploit the rules in pursuit of their own policy goals.  But from leaders’ perspectives, the reforms rein in the excesses of rank and file dissent when a bipartisan group is ready to move ahead.  As one Senate Democrat aide confided, “that’s all Reid ever really wanted.”

Finally, this episode highlights the limitation of the Constitutional option and other “reform-by-ruling” strategies.  There appears to have been a majority or near-majority support for securing only very limited reform of Rule 22.  Senators seem unwilling to use the tactic for a major overhaul of the Senate’s cloture rule—in part because of the fear of minority retaliation, in part because the filibuster rule likely serves as the foundation of senators’ power.   To be sure, Harry Reid aggressively used reform-by-ruling in the fall of 2011 to secure smaller changes to Rule 22 (as did Robert Byrd in the 1980s).  But we have to reach back nearly forty years to the 1975 reforms to find a Senate majority willing to go nuclear to impose major changes to Rule 22.  (Even then, reformers proceeded without the support of the majority leader, Mike Mansfield.)  Perhaps senators see the consequences of weakening Rule 22 in a different light when the parties polarize over policy problems and solutions, with senators nervous about curtailing extended debate when the tables turn on their majority.  Regardless, so long as majorities will only form to impose  minor reform by majority vote, those majorities will be forced to live under supermajority rules that daily frustrate their policy and political agendas.

And in the Senate’s world, those frustrating days can last for weeks!