Why Lautenberg Probably Didn’t Matter

Greg Sargent has some reporting out on the concerns among Senate Democrats that Frank Lautenberg’s death  may tip things against majority-imposed reform; with several Democratic defections possible and at least a couple likely, losing that one sure vote for reform could be the difference.

I don’t question his reporting — that is, I’m sure that Democrats are saying what he reports they’re saying — but I don’t really believe it. I continue to believe it’s highly unlikely that the Democrats will act unless they’re very close to being unanimous. One defection, maybe; two, perhaps; more, and I don’t think anything happens.

That’s in part because of the spin on it; I think a lot of Democrats are likely worried that a narrow vote with every Republican and a four (or, previously, five) Democrats opposing reform would mean that they’ll lose the spin battle. I think that’s probably a foolish reason; it won’t really matter who wins the fight over whether majority-imposed reform is “good government” or “majority tyranny.” No one cares about Senate procedure;  most of the press will forget about it in a couple of weeks, and voters will never have noticed.

(Caveat: it’s certainly possible that the conservative information loop will find majority-imposed reform to be a product that sells, but that just means it’s substituting for some other product; it won’t affect votes in 2014 or 2106).

However, it’s also in part because I don’t really think that the most reluctant Democrats are acting independently. I think quite a few Democrats are reluctant to change the rules. The balance here is between the incentives for them as individual Senators to retain their individual influence within the Senate and the incentives for them as Democrats to advance the party agenda. What determines the balance isn’t so much individual variation among Democrats, but the level of GOP obstruction. My strong suspicion here is that there will either be 52 or more votes (out of the 54), or there will be well under 50.

The tricky part is that no one wants to specify exactly how many and which positions Republicans would have to obstruct in order to trigger that 52+ number, since doing so would give them license to block everything up to that line. What’s more, I’m not convinced that any of the Democrats, including Harry Reid, have a precise formula in mind. Instead, I think they’ll work it out together, based on what Republicans do, what Democratic party actors do, and perhaps to a small extent what Barack Obama does. But I do think that it’s going to be more of a collective decision than a set of separate individual decisions.

Oh, and I think some sort of bipartisan efforts to avert majority-imposed reform is fairly likely.

No prediction from me on the outcome of any of this. And I’m an outsider here; the reporting could well be more correct than my outsider analysis. But that’s how I see the incentives involved.

[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.