Bringing institutional reform to the Senate

BRINGING INSTITUTIONAL REFORM TO THE SENATE…. When reviewing who and what are to blame for the death of the energy/climate bill, David Roberts labeled “the broken Senate” as the single most responsible factor. The “default supermajority requirement that’s been imposed” was the “main” impediment, Roberts argued, adding, “[T]he supermajority requirement has perverse, deleterious consequences that extend much farther than most progressives seem to understand.”

I’m comfortable describing this Congress as having been a historic success, but it’s painful to consider what would have been possible if the Senate operated under majority rule — the way it was designed to function, and the way it used to function. Accomplishments would have been even better; the economy would be stronger; and efforts that died would have survived — if only the Senate could vote on bills and nominations.

There was a flurry of chatter in February about reforming the way the Senate operates, led in part by Sen. Evan Bayh’s (D-Ind.) public expressions of frustration, but in time the talk faded away.

Ryan Grim and Sam Stein reported yesterday that the desire to reform the Senate hasn’t disappeared entirely, and may be poised for a comeback.

Momentum is building to reform Senate rules that allow silent filibusters and force a 60-vote requirement for virtually any action, interviews with Democratic candidates and sitting senators indicate.

Democratic candidates said that they hear regularly from voters about abuse of the parliamentary tactic, which is likely to come up as the first vote new senators face in 2011. The supermajority requirement in the Senate has become such an obstacle to reform that it infiltrates policy discussions at every step. Last week at the Netroots Nation political conference, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) gathered environmental writers to discuss energy legislation; the first few questions were related to energy, the rest of the conversation was dominated by the filibuster.

“The use of the filibuster and the way it’s led to backroom deals has created the impression in the heartland that the Senate is dysfunctional,” said Jack Conway, a Democratic candidate facing Republican Rand Paul in Kentucky. “They don’t understand why Washington can’t address the issues people care about. People in Kentucky wanted people focused on jobs — 14 months [of the health care debate] laid bare how broken the system was.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told the Netroots Nation conference about his support for reform, but it’s not just the leadership. Some of the Senate’s newer members — Al Franken (D-Minn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) — endorsed reform, as did some current candidates who hope to join the institution — Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), Elaine Marshall (D-N.C.) and Roxanne Conlin (D-Iowa). When I talked to Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) a couple of weeks ago, he seemed quite serious about this as well.

Of course, there’s the small matter of how reform might work, and how it might get accomplished. That’s still coming together, but a strategy is taking shape.

If Vice President Joe Biden — who has spoken out against abuse of the filibuster and has been studying ways to reform it — were to rule on the first day of the next session that the Senate has the authority to write its own rules, Republicans would immediately move to object. Democrats would then move to table the objection, setting up the key vote. If 50 Democrats voted to table the objection, the Senate would then move to a vote on a new set of rules, which would be approved by a simple majority.

Stay tuned.