Thursday, July 18, 2013

Why I'm glad that Democrats didn't change the Senate rules

Almost since Obama took office, almost every writer on politics whom I enjoy reading most, driven mad by GOP obstruction in the Senate, has urged filibuster reform.  Let Harry Reid's latest complaint stand in for a long statistical litany of GOP obstruction: he has had to deal with over 400 Republican filibusters, compared to Lyndon Johnson's one. 

Without doubt, Senate rules could use some rational tweaking. But I have argued since 2009 that the problem is not so much with the Senate rules as with the GOP destruction of governing norms. Instead of a loyal opposition we have had a nihilist one, unwilling to let the majority govern (with a rational level of resistance and negotiation to shape laws more to the minority's liking) and abide the electoral consequences of the laws they pass, unwilling to let the executive branch be staffed so it can perform its constitutional functions, unwilling to allow the lengthy enactment process to work for laws already passed and signed.

The problem is not so much the rules as the GOP; such nihilist opposition is dangerous, and bespeaks graver danger should the extremist party gain control of the presidency and both houses of Congress. Against that very real possibility the filibuster stands as a bulwark: I would rather let the GOP inhibit the Democrats' ability to pass legislation and fill vacancies than enable the GOP to wreak legislative havoc unrestrained if it has not moderated before the next time it gains power.

For that reason, I'm glad that Democrats did not unilaterally change the Senate rules.  It's true that Republicans have not forfeited their ability to obstruct Senate business: as Jonathan Bernstein points out today, they have already resumed doing so outside the parameters of the nominations they agreed to bring to vote. But they have been forced to more or less voluntarily re-affirm a norm they have long violated: The president is entitled to a vote on his executive branch appointments. Better that they acknowledge a norm than have new rules imposed.

Perhaps, with future control of the Senate uncertain (and looking like a tossup after the 2014 midterms), both sides can agree on rules reforms to take effect in 2015 (or later: Ezra Klein used to talk about reforms to take effect six ears after agreement). Most senators in both parties do not want to give up most of their minority prerogatives, so changes will be incremental rather than sweeping.  That's as it should be. Democrats should not be too eager to disarm their minority successors.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately the 'nihilist' GOP, if it has not moderated its views the next time it assumes the majority in the Senate, will remove all obstacles it sees in the way of enacting its extremist policies. Whether the Democrats did anything about the filibuster in 2013 will be entirely irrelevant. The only hope is to enact as much of the Democratic agenda as possible to convince as many voters as possible that those Democratic policies are the best course for the nation. Inaction works for the GOP.