Senators Strike Deal To Reform Senate Rules, But Stop Short Of Addressing Filibuster

Since President Obama took office, Senate Republicans have led an unprecedented campaign of obstruction, exploiting every arcane parliamentary trick at their disposal to thwart the president’s agenda, turning the Senate into an undemocratic quagmire where “good legislation goes to die.” Perhaps more troublingly, Senate Republicans have used parliamentary stalling tactics to block judicial and executive nominees, effectively hollowing out critical government agencies and causing major problems for the judicial branch, prompting even conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to call on the Senate to approve nominees faster.

Responding to this crisis of governance, a number of junior Democratic senators have proposed overhauling the Senate rules to make the upper chamber more effective. Led by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), this group has noted that Senate rules allow a window of time at the beginning at the each new Congress when rules can be rewritten and approved with only 51 votes, instead of the 67 normally need to change Senate rules. But instead of pushing more ambitious reforms via this option, Senate Democratic leaders have tried to reach an agreement with Republicans, suspending Senate business for the past few weeks to allow both sides time to negotiate.

Now, a deal has emerged that, while disappointingly unambitious, would move in the right direction by doing away with secret holds and make it easier to confirm presidential nominees:

There’s now a strong chance for a bipartisan agreement to make it easier to confirm, at least, noncontroversial judicial and executive branch nominees. Chances also remain high that the sides will agree to do away with secret holds, which allow senators to block nominations or bills anonymously.

But that may be as far as the Senate goes in overhauling its rules.

Details of the agreement remain sketchy and “nothing is final yet, and both sides have to discuss the ideas with their caucuses” tomorrow. While a deal to do away with pernicious secret holds is a welcome move that will help the federal government and judiciary operate more effectively, the deal does nothing to address the real problem with the Senate — the filibuster. Indeed, there seems to be little appetite among the leadership of both parties to address the filibuster as it empowers individual senators to extract pork barrel spending or other concessions that suit their narrow political interests.

Some progressives have argued against reforming the filibuster as they fear a day when Republicans control the upper chamber. But this is a democracy where elections matter, and the majority of either party should be able to carry out the will of the people who elected them.

As for conservatives, despite railing against the filibuster when Democrats held up some of President Bush’ most extreme judicial nominees, Republicans have defended the obstructionist tool tooth and nail as sacred. In a hyperbolic op-ed in Poltico today, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) warned that “[g]etting rid of the filibuster would end the Senate as we know it and as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other founders knew it.” But this historical claim has no basis in history — the first filibuster did not occur until 1841, years after both Jefferson and Madison had died. And the filibuster as we know it today did not emerge until the late 20th Century, and has has only been used to create a de-facto need for 60 votes to pass legislation in the past 10 years.

Any change to the Seante’s rules that stops short of weakening the filibuster’s stranglehold on governance should be considered merely a steppingstone to more meaningful reform.