What’s become of Senate reform

WHAT’S BECOME OF SENATE REFORM…. When we last left U.S. senators, before they broke a couple of weeks ago for a recess, discussions were underway on a modest-but-meaningful package of institutional reforms. Most notably, the Udall/Harkin/Merkley plan included measures on expediting motions to proceed, ending secret holds, and requiring “talking” filibusters.

As the Senate gets back to work this week, the talks appear to have produced an even narrower set of changes.

There’s no deal yet on how to change Senate filibuster rules, but Democrats and Republicans are finding common ground in two other areas: ending the practice of so-called secret holds and smoothing the way for presidential nominees.

Senate leaders from both parties are still trying to avoid a drawn-out fight over changing the rules to make it harder to filibuster. But as the Senate returns from a two-week recess this week, both sides may be willing to give a little, according to several sources familiar with the discussions.

There’s now a strong chance for a bipartisan agreement to make it easier to confirm, at least, noncontroversial judicial and executive branch nominees. Chances also remain high that the sides will agree to do away with secret holds, which allow senators to block nominations or bills anonymously.

But that may be as far as the Senate goes in overhauling its rules.

To be sure, these extremely modest steps would constitute a modicum of progress. Secret holds are, by their very nature, absurd. There’s been bipartisan support for eliminating the practice for quite a while, and this should be a no-brainer.

Changes to the nominating process would also be welcome. Currently, there are roughly 1,400 presidential appointments that require time-consuming Senate confirmation, which is almost comically unnecessary. Recent reform talks have signaled a willingness to reduce that total … to about 1,300.

Filibuster rules would remain untouched, as would exasperating post-cloture delays.

As reforms go, it’s hard to get much thinner than this. The steps would offer marginal improvements, but those of us hoping for more meaningful changes to a dysfunctional institution will very likely be disappointed with the end product.

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