Senate procedures are complicated — but not this complicated

SENATE PROCEDURES ARE COMPLICATED — BUT NOT THIS COMPLICATED…. The long-awaited package of Senate reforms were unveiled yesterday by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and will be the basis for discussions over the next three weeks. In that time, we can expect to hear a lot of misrepresentations about what’s on the table.

I tend to see the proposals as worthwhile, but if we’re being intellectually serious about this, the reforms are pretty tepid. The changes — ending filibusters on motions to proceed, eliminating secret holds, etc. — would make the chamber function more effectively, but only at the margins. I like the plan, but I also think it’s a mistake to consider it a sweeping overhaul. It isn’t.

So why support it? Partly because some improvements are better than none, but also because I see some value in getting the ball rolling a bit. Major institutional reforms rarely happen all at once, and the Senate is more resistant to change than most. The point would be to use Udall/Merkley as a stepping stone — minor changes now that could help clear the way for more systemic changes later.

In the meantime, though, conservatives’ willingness to mischaracterize the basics of what’s on the table is already ridiculous, and it’s likely to get worse. The Wall Street Journal ran a report on the Udall/Merkley plan that has no connection to reality — it argues the proposal intends to “stamp out the filibuster” and prevent Jimmy Stewart-like “Mr. Smith” moments.

Jon Chait sets the record straight, calling the WSJ‘s reporting “a complete inversion of the truth.”

The filibuster used to require endless debate. Under the current rules, though, the minority can block even the beginning of a debate. Filibuster proponents point to Jimmy Stewart and the history of the filibuster to paint their position as a defense of unlimited debate when they’re really just defending a supermajority requirement. Because current rules allow the minority to block the start of a debate, Stewart-style filibusters with actual speeches don’t happen.

What the Democrats propose to do is not to limit debate, or even to curtail the supermajority requirement. It’s merely to force the minority party to actually debate. The minority would not be able to block a bill from being debated on the floor. If they wanted to require a supermajority to pass it, they would have to actually debate it.

In other words, Boles (and the Republicans) claim that Mr. Smith Goes To Washington-style filibusters currently exist and the reforms would stop them. In reality, such filibusters do not currently exist and the reform bill would create them.

I don’t know why so many find this so hard to understand.