Senate sliding inexorably toward procedural reform

by: Chris Bowers

Wed Mar 24, 2010 at 15:18

Since Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007, Republicans have smashed all previous records for the number of cloture votes required to pass legislation.  Last month, a few Senators, led by Jim Bunning, used procedural moves to block an extension of unemployment benefits for a couple of weeks.  Now, in response to Democrats using reconciliation to pass legislation with 51 votes, which is apparently THE MOST TOTALITARIAN MOVE EVAH, Republicans are using procedural moves to limit committee hearings two only two hours a day:

Jim Manley, a spokesperson for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), objected to the objection. "For a second straight day, Republicans are using tricks to shut down several key Senate committees. So let me get this straight: in retaliation for our efforts to have an up-or-down vote to improve health care reform, Republicans are blocking an Armed Services committee hearing to discuss critical national security issues among other committee meetings? These political games and obstruction have to stop -- the American people expect and deserve better."

Without unanimous consent, committees are allowed to meet for two hours following the opening of the Senate session -- which on Wednesday was 9:00 a.m. The committees need consent to continue and consent again to continue after 2:00 p.m. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, had his hearing shut down abruptly at 11:00 Wednesday morning, in the middle of a discussion on the effort to end veteran homelessness in the next five years.

Republicans are now using whatever procedural means at their disposal to block not only virtually every Democratic piece of legislation, not only virtually every Obama administration nomination, but now even Democratic committee hearings.  While the GOP uses these procedures with political impunity, because few voters either care about or understand Senate procedure, there is only one way that this is all going to end.  In just a few years, the filibuster will be abolished, and by the end of the decade there will be a wave of rule changes that will make the Senate pretty much just like the House.

The three Democrats who could be Senate Majority Leader in 2011--Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin are already promising changes to Senate rules in 2011--are all already promising procedural reform next year as long as Democrats are still in charge of the Senate.  Further, given their track record on the filibuster (came close to abolishing it in 2005) and their use of any and all available procedural roadblocks now, if Republicans ever take back both the Senate and the White House, you can bank on the GOP changing any rules necessary to prevent Democrats from blocking any Republican legislation or nominations at all.  After all, not only have they already shown a willingness to use whatever procedure they can to achieve their ends, but Republicans have already told their base that Democrats have engaged in totalitarian procedural tactics.  As such, their base will demand a disproportionate response once Republicans are back in charge.

The days of the Senate as a slower-moving, "deliberative" body are coming to an end.  They will be gone entirely in 11 years or less.  While I never bet on politics, or really anything, I kind of wish there was an intrade market where I could bet on the end of the filibuster by 2021.  It's going to happen.

Chris Bowers :: Senate sliding inexorably toward procedural reform

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Do I need to come down there and (4.00 / 1)
find Reid's testicles for him?

Yes, the GOP is obstructionist.  We know that.  Is there really nothing that the Majority can figure out to punish the  GOP for their behavior?

How is it possible that the procedural tools always favor the GOP?  That when the GOP is in the majority they can close the Dems out.  But when the Dems are in the majority they can't hold hearings for more than two hours a day?

Here's my suggestion.  The Dems need to imagine what the GOP would do if the Dems had pulled this maneuver and then do that.  It isn't rocket science.

It's not (just) Reid. (0.00 / 0)
He does need 50+1 votes to do anything about it, even if he wants to. So it's considerably more Senators than just Reid who would need some assistance locating their gonads.

[ Parent ]
Not taking the bet (0.00 / 0)
Clearly, anything can happen in American politics (as witness the skin shade of the presidential incumbent).

But I doubt whether eliminating the filibuster is likely in the foreseeable future, for various reasons:

Chris himself walked us through the numbers that show that Dems would rarely be helped by a simple majority Senate to pass liberal legislation and would much more frequently find themselves without the power to block GOP legislation they would have had under current rules.

The veto pivot means that eliminating the filibuster only makes sense for the Dems if they control both elected branches, and have a simple majority in the Senate to enact a radical program of durable significance (New Deal, Great Society).

The fact that controlling both branches in the 111th has done the Dems little good (until the Senate health care bill passed, that is), with nary a hint of a radical program, suggests that the right circumstances for 'going simple' are unlikely to occur.

The GOP are playing a different game: they don't have a radical program to pass; their shtick is corporate welfare bills plus Lost Cause circuses for the Teabaggers. They didn't pull the trigger on judicial noms either, when they had the chance.

Ummm.... (4.00 / 2)
You're responding to Chris's post by citing another post of his where he's explaining why getting rid of the filibuster is a good idea.  The point you raise from that was actually part of his argument for killing the filibuster, not keeping it.  Because at least with the filibuster killed, there's a chance in hell of them passing better legislation when they're in power.

Not to say I think it's worth our time and effort to engage in their kabuki.  That's not where our power lies.  I don't care how they pass our legislation as long as they do so, and if we pressured on that point, where our power is able to achieve the greatest results, then I think they'd be far more willing to make changes to their rules to accommodate our legislative demands.  Nothing gets a politician's notice more than the threat of losing an election, but [killing] the filibuster is about as weak an issue to use for rallying support/opposition as you can find.  If a Senator decides not to kill it, is anyone going to withhold their time or money or votes from that campaign?  Very likely not.  So focusing on the filibuster is pretty useless to us.

But Chris is right that it's better to have a chance at winning, even at the risk of losing, than never having the chance of winning at all.  Besides which, we're already losing, so might as well open up a chance to win a few.

Health insurance is not health care.
If you don't fight, you can't win.
Never give up. Never Surrender.
Watch out for flying kabuki.

[ Parent ]
Chris's conclusion didn't follow from his premisses! (0.00 / 0)
The premisses, on the other hand, seemed pretty convincingly to throw cold water on the idea that ending the filibuster - even if possible - would be a clearly desirable deal from the Dem viewpoint.

But, given that the current Dem majority in the Senate (whose limited capacity and desire to implement radical reforms have been clearly demonstrated) is unlikely to be exceeded often, and Dem senators (even lefty faves) are fully on board with the conservative ethos of the institution, the chance of a Dems leadership initiating a process to end the filibuster any Congress soon must be remote.

[ Parent ]
The conclusion does follow. (4.00 / 1)
It's just not immediately obvious.  The simple form is in my sig, where I state "if you don't fight, you can't win."  There is nothing in there which says that fighting automatically leads to winning, nor does it even state that the chances of winning are good.  It just means simply that the prerequisite to winning is fighting.  Or to state it slightly more formally, the definition of a win is predicated upon engaging in conflict.

Chris's argument is based upon that necessity of fighting.  Currently, we can't win anything even remotely progressive given the rules in the Senate and the conservative nature of that body (even among Democrats).  By removing the filibuster, we lower the bar to success, which increases our odds of winning.  (Chris gets into numbers to try to show exactly how much our chances are improved, but that's not necessary for showing the soundness of the argument.)

Now this also means the risk of losing when Democrats are out of power is increased, but considering we are losing already and getting no wins (0% chance to win vs. 100% chance to lose)--and that's with the Democrats in power--any shift in that ratio is necessarily in our favor.  In essence, his argument is that the rules effectively prohibit us from fighting in the first place (which I think the recent HCR debacle is just the latest in a long line of evidence proving the point), so it's necessary to change the rules to make it possible for us to be able to fight.

And remember, the goal is to get our agenda through congress, not just prevent the conservative agenda.  So while the filibuster certainly gives us the opportunity to prevent the conservative agenda, because the makeup of the Senate is so conservative, it also virtually guarantees that our agenda will never pass.  Thus, it is in our interests to remove the filibuster.

Again, though, I don't want there to be any confusion regarding my agreement with Chris's logic on the necessity of killing the filibuster to be misconstrued as agreement with his overall argument for attempting to do so.  I think the whole idea of killing the filibuster misses the point, but I've already stated that, and if I'm reading you correctly, I think we both agree on that basic point, so I'll stop here.

Health insurance is not health care.
If you don't fight, you can't win.
Never give up. Never Surrender.
Watch out for flying kabuki.

[ Parent ]
it's a historical trend (4.00 / 3)
the senate has reduced it from 1 senator required to 34 senators required to 41 senators required to filibuster.  i suppose it's possible they would be able to make an argument for retaining the filibuster and say that it should be 51 votes required for passage rather than 50, but that doesn't seem like it would go very far :)  i think it probably is most likely to happen only when one party controls all three houses though (at least on an issue or two), because that's the only situation in which the byzantine roles of the senate pose the ONLY obstacle - so maybe it will take as long as 11 years or longer, but it will happen.

the bigger challenge is ensuring that this is part of a broader debate about democratizing or eliminating the senate - the reality is that having 2 votes per state rather than voting proportional to the population of the state is a principle that violates basic norms of democracy where not necessary.  if there were, say, genuine arguments about whether the federal or state government was the overarching power, then it might make sense but this is basically 19th century institutional structure for a world where it doesns't work anymore.

[ Parent ]
Somehow, the move from buggies to space (0.00 / 0)
travel doesn't seem like it took much time at all either. FYLTGE on filibusters.

(From Your Lips To God's Ears)

They only call it class war when we fight back.

Then the public option (4.00 / 1)
can fail because it "only has 49 votes."

I'm not certain anymore that any changes to process will result in progressive legislation. So I don't see the importance of it. The only thing that we all can bet on to result in progressive legislation is a powerful progressive movement.

There are no allies anywhere, no schisms either, its just a conspiracy. (0.00 / 0)


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

[ Parent ]
i think the importance of it is later (4.00 / 3)
when the progressive movement wants to institutionalise its changes.  one of the best articles i've read about why the united states doesn't have national health insurance was by steinmo and watts explaining the clinton administration's failure in the context of continued failures for generations.  it was called 'it's the institution's, stupid.'

or you could just look at the debate that just ended - the house had a much easier time instituting things like the public option and if the senate didn't have the filibuster, things as obscure as 'reconciliation' would never have to have been used.  

the way the senate is built and its culture, the divide between the states and the federal government, public financing of elections, reducing concentrations of corporate ownership of the media, and a tradition of worshipping the constitution and tradition all need to be subjects that progressives deal with if they want to make big lasting change rather than just participate in a 25 year cycle that will be reversed by a regressive 25 year cycle.  it's a testament to the design of social security that it's lasted and is untouchable - even still.

[ Parent ]
The way things are going (4.00 / 1)
The Republicans will continue overplaying their hand. Once unemployment gets back < 6%, the GOP is on their way to the party of 35%.

Unless the Republicans suddenly take on a new found interest in governing, I think some sort of reform is inevitable.

If we're lucky, the Democratic Senate & the Obama administration will realize to get done what needs to get done to secure a 2nd Obama term requires an overhaul of Senate rules at the start of the 2011 session.

At the least, the majority has to be able to do simple stuff like schedule and run hearings all day each and every day plus keep the legislative agenda moving. Government cannot be held hostage by a minority party that has abdicated all responsibility for governing.

They call me Clem, Clem Guttata. Come visit wild, wonderful West Virginia Blue

unemployment < 6% (4.00 / 3)
Seems like a dream. The only way I could see that happening is a national industrial policy with the explicit goal of full employment (like Germany.) Americans don't think that way, yet. Most Americans still think a corporatist system, like our current one, can lead us to less unemployment. The problem is that the corporatists never wanted full employment -- it just cuts into their margins.

At best, we might dip below 9% employment based on more public spending, but without more tax revenue, that is unsustainable. We are in a vicious cycle of economic contraction driven by concentration of wealth. Breaking up the concentration of wealth, though tax policy and anti-trust, is the only way out of this cycle. Both Roosevelt's figured that out, I'm not sure Obama has.

ec=-8.50 soc=-8.41   (3,967 Watts)

[ Parent ]
Press Coverage? (4.00 / 3)
Chris, and anyone else, I'm curious if this sort of Republican stupidity is getting any national media? Specifically, Reid's comment that they're preventing an Armed Services committee meeting on national security. Surely that should get some media notice? Seems like Democrats have an opportunity to do everything to get coverage, to shame Republicans by name.

Give Repubs credit? (0.00 / 0)
So if this happens, Chris, will you give credit to Republicans?  This will be a result of their overreach, an unintended development that will harm the Conservative cause, by making majority rule possible in both House and Senate.


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