Harry Reid’s wimpy Senate reforms

Fixing the dysfunctional upper house requires more dramatic measures than the majority leader's tinkering

Topics: U.S. Senate,

Harry Reid's wimpy Senate reformsSen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (Credit: Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

Senate reform is back in the news, thanks to some incredibly obscure procedural shenanigans on the Senate floor last week and a follow-up Op-Ed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Washington Post. The narrow issue concerned filibuster rules but the broader issue is how to fix dysfunctional Washington.

The news was not good. For those who believe that the Senate is unable to function properly under current rules and practices, however, neither the very minor change in precedent nor Reid’s Op-Ed — which blamed Republicans for abuse but didn’t even hint at doing anything further about it — were very encouraging. Indeed, for anyone who wants to retain the Senate’s old traditions and advantages, the time to reform Senate rules is as soon as possible — because otherwise the Senate is most likely going to wind up as a second House of Representatives.

The problem is that both parties have been in a decades-long war to exploit the Senate rules, which has produced a dysfunctional chamber that looks little like what it was in, say, 1961 or even 1981. Most of the ratcheting up has been by Republicans, who began filibustering all major legislative initiatives during Bill Clinton’s presidency and increased that to across-the-board filibusters in 2009. During Barack Obama’s first two years, we had for the first time a true 60-vote Senate, in which every bill and every nomination was automatically filibustered.

Democrats have contributed, too: Their defeat of Defense Secretary nominee John Tower in 1989 ushered in a new era in which partisan battles over nominations were the norm, and in the majority they reacted to filibusters by restricting the ability of minority-party senators to offer amendments. The Senate has never been a strictly majoritarian body, but it used to be perfectly ordinary for bills and nominations to pass narrowly — which used to mean (winning!) votes of 51-49 or 52-28. No more.

This can’t and won’t last. During periods of divided government, such as the current one, it doesn’t matter very much; the seemingly epic struggle over the jobs bill in the Senate over the last week was really just over bragging rights, since everyone knew that the House wasn’t going to support Obama’s bill regardless of whether it passed the Senate or not.  But the next time there’s unified government, it’s unlikely that a majority party, just elected, will allow itself to be constantly thwarted — especially if it has serious policy goals.



Indeed, that it’s lasted this long will probably be seen to have been a fluke; Democrats were less frustrated in 2009-2010 because they had 60 seats for part of the time, and Republicans during 2003-2006 rarely had any legislative plans of their own, so wound up only really caring about judges — and so that was what they threatened to go “nuclear” about.

If what you want is a parliament-like Senate run by and for the majority party, in which the minority party and individual senators have little ability to legislate, that’s all good. But there’s good reason to search for a middle ground between the present mess and party control.

First of all, a Senate in which individual senators from both parties can fight for particular interests adds something in terms of representation not available elsewhere in the political system. And second, a chamber in which individual senators can make significant contributions to policy, with or without the support of the majority party’s agenda, can be an overall more productive institution, increasing (as I believe the framers intended) the overall potential of the system. We’re used to thinking of checks and balances as a way to prevent things, which is true, but checks and balances also means giving more actors a chance to have meaningful policymaking roles, which makes the whole system far more vital.

So those who really do want a powerful Senate that uses contributions from all its members should be acting now to reform the rules before it’s too late. I’d like to see reforms that include a simple majority confirmation of executive branch nominees while retaining holds so that individual senators can fight for their narrow interests; a guaranteed but still supermajority vote for lifetime judicial nominees; and a new superbill or leadership bill to replace the awkward and arbitrary reconciliation rules. Such a bill would give the majority party a good shot to get (some of) their priorities passed each year — while giving the minority a real chance to pass amendments. Others have tried to invent complex schemes for some sort of sliding scale of filibusters, trying to guarantee both minority voice and majority action.

But unless real defenders of the Senate step up and act soon, none of that will matter. We’ll most likely wind up with majority party rule, with a meaningless minority party with strong incentives for irresponsible behavior, just as we have had in the House ever since reforms implemented in the 1960s and 1970s strengthened majority party leadership in that chamber. And Congress, and the constitutional system, will be permanently damaged.

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>