April 17, 2013

With Manchin-Toomey expected to be defeated by filibuster today (and, yes, that’s what is happening, even though there’s no cloture vote), liberals are blaming the filibuster (and, in my view incorrectly, blaming Majority Leader Harry M. Reid of Nevada). Will this lead to filibuster reform?

Actually, it’s a two-part answer.

For senators right now: No, not really. For majority-party senators, filibuster reform as a practical matter is always going to be about the balance between partisan incentives (which are for majority-party rule) vs. incentives to preserve individual clout (which are for preserving filibuster, holds and other antimajoritarian rules and norms). Given divided government, it’s highly unlikely that the partisan incentives will win out.

It’s no surprise that Reid has talked about revisiting reform on nominations, where the partisan incentives right now are far, far, higher than they are on legislation; after all, on nominations (where the House has no say) Democrats have unified government, and so the filibuster really does make a difference.

That’s the direct incentives for senators.

But senators also care, in the long run, about what party actors care about. So, to the extent that party actors place an increasing priority on Senate reform, it becomes more likely to happen over time.

Indeed: the evidence is that party actors did not place a particularly high priority on Senate reform in recent election cycles. Indeed, before 2006 (when Democrats were in the minority in the Senate) very few Democrats cared about it, and many preferred the status quo. It takes time to turn something like that around. It’s easier to get people excited about substantive issues than procedural ones, after all — and it’s easy to blame presidents or outside interest groups for what happens (or doesn’t happen) in Congress.

The lesson is to not expect anything soon in Senate reform, especially on legislation. Those who want reform must make it as high a priority as possible for Democrats, because, in the long run, that matters, too.

With the Manchin-Toomey bill, it may matter quite a bit whether Democratic Party actors wind up blaming the NRA or the Senate rules. Not who they should blame — that’s a different question — but who they do blame.

Those who care about Senate reform should be working hard to place the blame for the gun bill squarely on Senate rules. Even if it isn’t exactly technically true.