The Senate reform deal

THE SENATE REFORM DEAL…. We talked this morning about the fate of reforming Senate rules, and the unwarranted death of the Udall/Harkin/Merkley plan. This afternoon, the negotiations came to a formal end, and an agreement was announced.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced Thursday that they would preserve the hallowed filibuster rules but “exercise restraint” to ease legislative gridlock.

Moreover, the two men promised never to use an obscure procedure called the “constitutional option” — which some call the “nuclear option” — to try to change Senate rules by 51 votes, rather than by a two-thirds majority of 67 senators.

It’s a genuine shame that the agreed-to reforms are so minor; the Senate has become deeply dysfunctional in a way that threatens not only the legislative process, but the ability of the government to function. It is, to borrow a phrase, pretty tough to win the future with a Senate that doesn’t work.

That said, the agreement announced today, while disappointing, includes worthwhile improvements. Secret holds will be restricted considerably, and roughly a third of the executive branch positions currently subjected to Senate confirmation will no longer need a vote at all. To the delight of the clerks, members also won’t be able to delay proceedings by forcing legislation to be read out loud after it’s been publicly filed.

Perhaps most notably, there’s a “gentlemen’s agreement” in place between the caucus leaders — Dems will “exercise restraint” in blocking amendments, and Republicans will “limit” the filibusters on motions to proceed.

More dramatic changes — including the “talking” filibuster, and the prospect of eliminating filibusters altogether — never stood a chance. Too many senators find it too easy to imagine being in the minority, when they may want to utilize some of these obstructionist tools themselves.

And then, of course, there’s the “constitutional option,” which reformers hoped Dems would use to force sweeping changes by majority rule. Reid and McConnell agreed today not to use this tactic for the rest of this Congress — or in the next Congress, when either party could be in the majority.

The significance of this is probably obvious — if Mitch McConnell is the Senate Majority Leader two years from today, he’ll be as limited as Dems are now, at least until 2014.

But there’s a flip side, too. As Greg Sargent noted, the very possibility of exercising the “constitutional option” opened the door to reforms in the first place, and with this now off the table, at least for a long while, we can forget about additional attempts to improve how the Senate operates. Similarly, Ezra Klein noted that “the minority is not on notice that further abuse of the filibuster (and associated stalling tactics) could lead to more significant reforms.”

The agreement includes some modest steps in the right direction, but the reforms could have been, and should have been, far more ambitious, and it’s highly unlikely we’ll see anyone try again for a very long time.