The Senate still needs reform, too

THE SENATE STILL NEEDS REFORM, TOO…. With a little more than six months left before the end of the 111th Congress, leaders of the Democratic majority would love to pass three more major pieces of legislation: Wall Street reform, a climate/energy bill, and immigration reform. If it were simply a matter of letting the Senate vote, up or down, on each, it’s pretty likely all three would become law with time to spare.

But we know, of course, that’s not how the system works anymore. Senators can’t vote until Republican filibusters are broken — and the GOP’s scandalous abuse applies to every bill of any significance.

It’s worth remembering, then, that talk of reforming the dysfunctional upper chamber is still percolating in the background.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on Thursday launched a high-profile fight in a committee hearing on changing the Senate’s filibuster rules.

Schumer opened a scheduled hearing on the 200-year history of the legislative tactic by serving notice that he intends to strongly consider some kind of change to the chamber’s rules, to prevent legislation continuing to be blocked by small numbers of senators.

“The filibuster used to be the exception to the rule. In today’s Senate, it’s becoming a straitjacket,” Schumer said. “The truth is, both parties have had a love-hate relationship with the filibuster depending on if you are in the majority or the minority at the time. But this is not healthy for the Senate as an institution.”

McConnell replied that Dems are just frustrated because Republicans won’t let them vote on legislation. That is, of course, exactly right.

For his part, Senate President Pro Tem Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), also a senior member of the Rules Committee and the Senate’s informal chamber historian, defended the institution’s unique rules that he holds dear, but reminded his colleagues that reforms are sometimes “necessary.” Byrd urged the Senate to “remain open to changes in the Senate rules.”

And speaking of possible changes to the Senate rules, there are plenty of proposals members can consider. The Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus presented four (and a half) very sensible ideas for reforming the process this week; Johns Hopkins’ Charles Stevenson had an op-ed in Roll Call the other day calling on the Senate to eliminate filibusters for motions to proceed; and not too long ago, Binghamton University’s Jonathan Krasno and Gregory Robinson presented a compelling vision of a three-step plan, which includes forcing 41 senators to assemble the votes to continue debate (rather than the other way around) and reducing debate times (no more 30-hour delays after the initial cloture).

While these efforts continue to be mulled over, Schumer has promised to proceed with a series of additional hearings. I have low expectations, but at this point, it’s good to see the issue get any attention at all.