No price for unprecedented obstructionism and destructive governance

January 24, 2013

Norman Ornstein, an observer of Congress for decades, literally wrote the book on GOP obstructionism. So I asked him what he thought of the disappointing filibuster reform deal reached today between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. His reply:

“To avoid disruption right now, they opted for greater efficiency in the operation of the Senate, rather than providing a much higher hurdle for obstructionism. They are going to make it easier to move things, but they are not extracting a price for bad behavior right now.”

This is exactly the problem. Today’s reforms do nothing to discourage, or extract any price whatsoever for, precisely the type of unprecedented and destructive party-wide obstructionism that launched the push for reform in the first place.

The package of reforms doesn’t include the “talking filibuster,” and it does not include the provision that would have put the onus on the minority to come up with 41 votes to sustain the filibuster. What’s more, the threshold remains 60 votes both to end debate (which was probably never going to change) and for the motion to proceed (which was supposed to change, but in the end was only tweaked). You can debate endlessly how effective the talking filibuster and the 41 vote requirement would have been in discouraging concerted obstructionism. But those were at least efforts to try to address the problem. The current reforms don’t try to address it at all.

“If you’re going to have a filibuster, and provide minority rights, the whole idea is that if you feel intensely enough to filibuster, the burden should be on you,” Ornstein said. This whole reform push originally was designed to address the basic problem that Republicans, as a party, were abusing Senate rules as part of a deliberate scheme to render government entirely dysfunctional, out of the calculation that the President would pay the price. The effort was unprecedented in scope (the number of filibusters) and nature (blocking even routine Senate business).

Reid used to believe that this was the basic problem that needed addressing. As Steve Benen notes, in 2010 Reid explicitly said the 60 vote threshold was something that had to change.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some decent things in the package. As Jonathan Bernstein details, it will be harder for small groups of senators or even individual ones to muck up the works via holds and foot-dragging on nominations and so forth. But the basic overall problem — concerted obstructionism as a party wide strategy designed to achieve overtly partisan ends regardless of the merits of what’s being considered, rather than to register a minority’s urgent objections on matters of great import — will remain untouched. As David Dayen notes in a must read, there is a long history of using filibusters to frustrate liberal reform, albeit not in quite as concerted a way as during the Obama era, and that won’t change.

There is a glimmer of a silver lining. Read David Waldman and David Atkins on this, but the push for reform had the salutary effect of creating an outside network of activists and interest groups which really did succeed in shining a light into some of the Senate’s darker recesses. The Senate’s anti-democratic cast became a staple of news articles and editorials and online chatter. The reform push even highlighted the benefits of having more liberal and energetic Democrats challenging the old guard — and suggests that down the road, adding more of them could push reform further along later.

And Norm Ornstein tells me he believes McConnell may be a bit more reluctant this time to engage in the same old obstructionism, because Reid still can change the rules mid-stream later — and having proven willing to act, just may act again if the GOP resorts to business as usual. More pressure from outside — and the addition of more energetic liberals to the Dem caucus — can help make this more likely. So the story is not over, though it certainly was a disappointing end to this chapter.

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Jonathan Bernstein | January 24, 2013