The need for ‘a credible majoritarian threat’

THE NEED FOR ‘A CREDIBLE MAJORITARIAN THREAT’…. Is it likely we’ll see 67 votes materialize for Harkin/Shaheen, restoring majority rule to the Senate? Let’s call it a long-shot. Is it likely Senate Democrats will exercise the “nuclear option” and end the filibuster rule altogether? Probably not.

But Matt Yglesias raised an important point yesterday about the nature of policymakers responding to threats.

[T]he way you get to reform is through a credible majoritarian threat. If you look at the successful 1975 filibuster reform you’ll see that this is how it went down. Reform opponents feared that reformers were getting close to pulling the trigger on filibuster-elimination, so they formed a compromise proposal. That’s how we got to 60 down from 67. Similarly, during the 2005 standoff it was the existence of a credible “nuclear option” threat that got Democrats to allow the confirmation of Bush’s judges.

If people think it’s plausible that 50 Democrats will band together and eliminate the filibuster in 2011, then I think it’s likely you’ll get 67 votes for some kind of phase-out proposal that would be friendlier to the interests of the Republicans. But if people know that the rules will only change if 67 Senators agree to change them, then the rules will never change.

Right. Senate Republicans are well aware of the fact that they’re breaking the American legislative process, and making it impossible for the majority to govern, which suits them fine. They’re also confident that Senate Democrats won’t really do anything about it, except complain. Indeed, Dems reinforce this by expressing anxiety about even considering their top legislative priority through reconciliation — hesitancy the GOP did not show when they used the identical process during the Bush/Cheney era.

But procedural changes happen when there’s a credible threat. A quarter-century ago, the threat of eliminating the filibuster altogether led to reform. Five years ago, the Gang of 14 got together when the “nuclear option” appeared likely to happen. Just a couple of days ago, President Obama threatened a slew of recess appointments, prompting the Senate GOP to quickly approve 27 pending administration nominees.

To be sure, it’s naive to think Republicans would simply stop filibustering to prevent a Democratic “nuclear option” from coming to fruition. But a credible threat is far more likely to have an effect than the alternative — which is to simply tolerate the GOP’s unprecedented abuse.

If Harry Reid were to make clear, with varying degrees of subtlety, that the status quo is simply untenable, and that he feels like he has no choice but to make it possible for a majority to govern again, it would possibly change the nature of the existing dynamic. At this point, he has nothing to lose.