January 24, 2013
Harry Reid's filibuster reform
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The key to understanding what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s reform package actually does is to remember that there have been two different problems of obstruction in recent years.

One type of obstruction is that relatively small majorities, anything up to 59 Senators, can be and are flat-out defeated on everything. In other words, there’s a 60 vote Senate. Reid’s reform plan does absolutely nothing about that.

But there’s also another kind of obstruction, too. Even when there are 60 votes — sometimes, even when there are 70 or 80 or even more — individual Senators and small groups of Senators have had many tools to stall and delay. And because Senate floor time is scarce, those delays have raised the cost of bringing even overwhelmingly popular items to the floor. And because more time on each item reduces the time remaining for the rest, and therefore reduces the overall capacity of the Senate, the minority party has taken to delaying even some measures which they all agree on!

Reid’s reform plan, which does nothing for smaller majorities, really should make a difference for this second type of obstruction. On nominations, one of the biggest ways small majorities can drag their feet has been by insisting on the 30 allocated hours of post-cloture time; that will be slashed, depending on the type of nomination. On bills, the possibility of multiple filibusters on the same bill has been one of the main problems; this plan would make delay on the procedure for getting to the floor less likely, and dramatically reduce the possible delays on moving a passed bill to a conference with the House. All of that will be even more effective if they also make Senators actually speak if they want to continue delaying even after they’ve lost a cloture vote.

Put it all together, and Reid’s package has some good and some bad. On the one hand, it should help uncontroversial nominations, and perhaps uncontroversial bills, get through the Senate a lot more easily. That’s a good thing, and significant even if nothing else happens!

On the other hand, it probably does tend to put more influence into the hands of party leaders, rather than individual Senators. I have mixed feelings about that — I’d rather preserve the influence of individual Senators and have it used responsibly, but that’s not something that can be imposed by rule. And Reid’s package does nothing about the pure 60 vote Senate. Perhaps paradoxically, that might be the very worst thing for minority rights in the Senate; if they can’t agree to some middle ground, the odds increase that sooner or later a frustrated majority party will simply impose radical change.

Still, the problem of obstruction of large majorities is a real one, and I think on the whole this set of reforms should help reduce it. So while reform certainly has fizzled from the point of view of anyone who hoped for more, it’s a mistake to overlook the real changes that will be coming to the 113th Senate.