The changes Ben Nelson may not have noticed

THE CHANGES BEN NELSON MAY NOT HAVE NOTICED…. About a month ago, Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska seemed frustrated by Republican efforts to block the 9/11 health bill. He told MSNBC that GOP obstructionism on the bill was “outrageous” and blocking a vote on funding U.S. troops was “ridiculous.”

Reflecting on additional Republican threats to block bills the GOP doesn’t like, the conservative Democrat added, “It may have worked as a good tactic … to win the last set of elections, but I don’t think it can hold for the next two years.”

Given Nelson’s track record, the remarks were encouraging. Indeed, two weeks later, he joined every other returning Democratic senator in signing a letter to the leadership, urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to pursue changes to the chamber’s filibuster rules. If Nelson was on board with changes, it suggested the drive for reform was stronger than predicted.

I guess he changed his mind?

The Senate shouldn’t change its rules to undercut the filibuster, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said Wednesday.

Nelson told a local media outlet that he has reservations about efforts by his Democratic colleagues in the Senate to change rules surrounding the filibuster, a key procedural tactic used by Republicans to slow down or block pieces of legislation.

“The last thing we need to do is start changing rules, with 51 votes and simple majority, and make the Senate a smaller version of the House,” Nelson told the Omaha World-Herald.

I often find Ben Nelson hard to figure out, but even for him, this is odd. It was just one month ago that the Nebraskan said something had to be done about Senate dysfunction. Now he believes changes are “the last thing we need”?

As for the notion that simple majority-rule — a proposal that isn’t even on the table — would make the Senate a “smaller version of the House,” Nelson may not realize this, but for two centuries, the chamber did not have to deal with filibusters on every bill, and Senate majorities were allowed to pass legislation without a minority veto. Throughout that time, no one confused the upper chamber for the lower — the qualities that make the Senate unique are not dependent on mandatory supermajorities and secret holds.

Indeed, Nelson isn’t just fundamentally confused about this, he has it backwards. “The last thing we need to do is start changing rules”? Here’s a tip, senator: by allowing recent abuses to continue unchecked, you’re allowing the minority to change the rules, just in a gradual and informal way.

Harry Reid offered a fascinating summary this morning: “There were about as many filibusters in the last two Congresses as there were in the first six-and-a-half decades that the cloture rules existed. There were nearly as many filibusters in just the last two years as there were in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and half of the 1970s combined. In the entire 19th century, the Senate saw fewer than 12 — a dozen filibusters. Now we see that many in a single month.”

If Ben Nelson thinks that’s an acceptable institutional change, fine, I’ll gladly listen to his case. But his comments to the Omaha paper make it sound as if the status quo needs protection. That’s absurd — the status quo is dysfunctional mess, thanks to obstructionism that has no precedent in American history.

This isn’t how the Senate used to work, this isn’t how the Senate was designed to work, and this isn’t how the Senate should be expected to work.