Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Perils of Excessive Modesty

The Senate rules reform proposal has been released, and while it's a move in the right direction, it's also too unambitious for my tastes.  On the super-majority itself, the 60 vote threshold to end debate would not be changed, but the burden of maintaining the filibuster would be put on the opponents.  The reform team also added two new side proposals to the ones I mentioned below: one to guarantee a minimum number of amendments on each bill to the opposition, and one to reduce the post-cloture debate time to two hours on nominees.  On balance, it would be a step in the right direction if passed, but a modest one.  Though the opposition might have to work a bit harder, it would still be able to halt any particular bill without extraordinary effort.

The most important outcome of passage of the proposal would be establishment of the principle that rules can be changed by a simple majority on the first day of the session.  That will happen because the Democratic reform leaders have chosen to use the so-called constitutional option (which is slightly different from the nuclear option which would have established the principle of rule changes at any time).  The other choice would have been to negotiate a set of rule changes with the Republicans that could gather 67 votes, which is the current requirement due to the debatable assertion of the Senate as a continuing body.  Of course, negotiation would have been pointless because the Republicans have no interest in altering rules that allowed them to obstruct Senate business at will.  So the Democrats will have to proceed on their own.

To me, once the precedent is established that rules can be changed by a simple majority on day one of a Congress, there wouldn't be much point in keeping the 60 vote threshold for cloture.  Eventually, it would be lowered to 50, so it might as well be done now.  The Republicans would accuse the Democrats of a "power grab" if the threshold were to be changed this year, but they are going to do so anyway, so I think the Democrats might as well get something for the lumps they are inevitably going to take.  But the Democrats are being typically fair-minded (or timid) about this, so the 60 vote threshold will remain in force.  I said before that streamlining the nomination process would be the most important result of any rules reform (though now it would be the second most important), and I think the proposal as it stands will provide a significant amount of improvement in that aspect of the Senate's duties.

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