The Senate Reform Report Card

The Senate just voted unanimously to confirm Jane Kelly, nominated by the president for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. This is how it’s supposed to work! Kelly was nominated on January 31 of this year for a brand-new opening, with Michael Malloy taking senior status. A circuit court spot filled in under three months? Well done, Barack Obama and the Senate!

So, two things. One is that everyone has given Harry Reid a lot of grief over Senate reform, but it sure seems to me that things have been steadily improving. That’s five circuit court vacancies filled this year so far. It leaves only four pending circuit court nominations. Granted, there’s a 10th nominee who was defeated by filibuster. But again, and this is important: reform wasn’t designed to change the 60 vote de facto requirement; it was designed to eliminate delays, or at least improve efficiency, while leaving the 60 vote Senate in place. Reformers may not like that goal, of course. But that’s what they were trying to do, and I think there’s a pretty good chance they’ve succeeded.

On executive branch nominations, the story appears to be much the same. I count just a handful of executive branch nominations which have been on the Senate calendar — that is, have cleared committee and should be available for a final vote — longer than a couple of weeks. Now, I’m not sure how much of that is that they’ve been doing a good job of processing them, and how much of it has to do with delays elsewhere. But again, this is not how things were in the 112th or even the 111th Congress, when long delays were common even when there was no real opposition.

It’s not just nominations. Republican Senators were willing to vote cloture on the motion to proceed on the gun bill, allowing that legislation to get to the Senate floor. And reform also appeared to work both ways on that one — Republicans were able to get votes on several of their amendments. Yes, it’s all within the 60 vote Senate, and no, I don’t think everything should be filibustered. But it’s significantly better, within that, to at least have bills coming to the floor and to have something resembling an open amendments process. Even if it has to be with a 60 threshold.

To be sure: it’s not good enough. We’re still seeing way, way, too many serious attempts to block executive branch nominations; those should be very rare. Nullification through nominations is still going on for selected positions. It should not be. It is still possible that Republicans are blockading the DC Circuit Court, although it’s hard to know given how few nominations Obama has sent up. On legislation, it may be in the interests of all Senators to preserve the possibility of filibusters, but 60 on everything is bad for the Senate.

But strictly within the limits of what reform was meant to do — to make the 60 vote Senate work better — I think the early returns are actually pretty good.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.