There’s a good chance that the 2012 elections will bring unified government again, and with it new pressure for Senate reform. The bad news? Neither party is ready.
Of course, for those who would like to just eliminate the filibuster altogether and turn the Senate into a second House of Representatives, with strict majority party rule, that’s probably the best thing. Sooner or later, a party elected in a solid landslide but falling short of 60 Senators will be frustrated enough that unless it has some other workable plan it may just do that.
But for those of us who believe that the strength of the Senate is in the ability of individual Senators to make serious contributions and who are wary of the tyranny of a majority party, that outcome would be a mistake.
Right now, any reform plans are going to come from the Democratic side, as they currently have the Senate majority (and, of course, all Senate majority parties are anti-filibuster, while all Senate minority parties support it). If any Republican out there supports filibuster reform, they’re going to keep quiet about it for now. But Democrats haven’t done much either. I’ve been looking at candidate Web sites of Senate candidates, and of those most likely to wind up as new Democratic senators — that is, challengers who have a decent chance and open seat candidates — only two of the ten I examined supported filibuster reform.
Unfortunately, the reform that those two are promoting, requiring “live” filibusters, isn’t very likely to do any good. Under current rules, the majority actually can force a “live” filibuster whenever they want, but don’t do it because it isn’t in their interest to do so. So far at least, I haven’t seen any proposed rules that would change that calculus. Supporting “live” filibusters is certainly a popular idea, but it wouldn’t actually accomplish anything.
There are, to be sure, a fair number of good ideas out there for reform. I’d like to see plenty of change: simple majorities needed for executive branch confirmation, ending holds on judicial nominations, and a “superbill” to replace reconciliation, allowing intense majorities to defeat intense minorities on their highest priority agenda items. The main point, however, is that the time to think about the best possible reform is now, not after (for example) we wind up with two Supreme Court vacancies because no one can get confirmed.
By the way — the two Democratic candidates who are currently advocating Senate reform on their Web sites? One is easy to guess: Elizabeth Warren, who of course was herself the victim of a threatened Republican filibuster. The other is maybe more interesting. It’s Ed Case, who is running as the more moderate of two candidates in a contested primary in Hawaii. Indeed, Case frames it as a way to make the Senate more bipartisan, rather than a way for Democrats to enact their programs. It makes sense to me; filibuster reform should appeal to liberals, but is not the kind of substantive policy endorsement that Case presumably does not support (indeed, it’s very unlikely that most voters care at all about it, even though party actors might be quite intense). Pressure to conform to party-actor priorities should be most intense when there’s a contested primary; I’ll be watching to see whether Case’s more liberal opponent, and the candidates in New Mexico’s contested primary, wind up jumping on the reform bandwagon. So far, however, there appears to be little interest in this issue. Which is too bad, because if there is unified government we’re going to hear a lot about it, whichever party wins.