Senate Rules Fight Coming?

Greg Sargent has an important post up this afternoon about the possibility of a strong drive for filibuster reform if, as the polls right now are indicating, we get a status quo election: Barack Obama is re-elected with the Democrats holding the Senate and Republicans keeping their House majority. Greg reports that nine Democratic candidates who are winning or in tossup races are pledging to support Jeff Merkley, who has been pushing Senate reform for a while now.

As I’ve said before, Senate reform is most likely after a party enjoying unified government is thwarted by the filibuster for some time. When the Senate first flips, the new majority usually includes quite a few Senators who have taken strong pro-filibuster stands only recently. Not only would it be politically embarrassing for them to immediately switch, but the truth is that after defending it for enough years, most Senators will come to believe that it is necessary. It takes a while for veteran Senators to change their minds. And if the Senate or the White House flips, then the momentum for change should be entirely lost; if a veto-proof majority or a deal is needed, then the filibuster isn’t a major obstacle. Of course, the second part of that is that if the House and Senate are split, then the filibuster isn’t very important on legislation.

What all this means is that a status quo election should increase the pressure for reform, but particularly for nominations (where the Republican House would be irrelevant). Since in my view the most pressing need is for executive branch nomination reform, I’d be glad to see that happen! Reform is also more likely if Democrats pick up seats — the point of maximum frustration should be when a party has a clear majority, but falls short of 60, probably by enough that easy deals to pick off a couple of moderates won’t help. Of course, a larger caucus would also increase Democratic confidence that that their majority will last after 2016, reducing the risk they’ll be mostly making things easier for a future Republican president.

I continue to be not particularly impressed with Merkley’s particular menu of reforms, but I do think that some change would be a good idea. If we do have a status quo election, I’ll be no doubt blogging quite a bit about it soon after.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.