Power, the Senate and the Republican ‘control grab’

November 22, 2013

As an opponent of strict majority-party rule and a supporter of the influence of individual members of Congress, I do not consider yesterday a day to celebrate for the Senate. The reform itself is fine, as far as the new rules go — excellent for executive branch nominations and tolerable but not ideal for judicial nominations. But imposing it by majority vote is a big marker on the way to a more House-like Senate, and the result will be a Congress with less capacity.

That’s bad for good governance, and bad for democracy.

Placing the blame on Harry Reid and the Democrats, however, gets it very, very wrong.

What has to be understood is that there was a “power grab” in the Senate. It was a power grab by the minority party. Or, to put it more accurately, a “control grab.” Republicans, defeated in the presidential election and with only 45 seats, attempted to change the de facto rules of the game by preventing President Obama from filling several positions, with the final breaking point being the blockade of D.C. Circuit nominees. That is, they attempted to control the Senate — not to influence outcomes, but to control the Senate — as a minority. That couldn’t hold, and it didn’t.

Power isn’t necessarily zero-sum. By increasing the ability of each of 100 Senators and both parties to make positive contributions, traditional Senate rules and norms increased the overall power of the Senate, and the overall power and capacity of the nation. The fact that any senator can offer amendments on the Senate floor, or place a hold on legislation or a nomination in order to fight for something of particular importance to his or her constituents, doesn’t take away from anyone else’s capacity. So a Senate of 100 active Senators would be a very powerful thing indeed.

But partisan control is zero-sum. If senators simply act as party members, then either the Democrats or the Republicans are going to win, and that’s that.

So, yes, yesterday’s events and the likely eventual extinction of the filibuster will absolutely harm the Senate and the nation. It’s another blow against the amazing capacity for action built into the Madisonian political system.

But the responsibility for that blow lies completely with the 43 Republicans (all but the two who supported cloture in the key votes) who simply refused to accept traditional Senate norms and insisted on playing a zero-sum game of Senate control that they could not possibly win. The Democrats should not be blamed for winning a game they were forced to play. Republicans left Harry Reid and the Democrats with no choice. But Republicans were free to simply back off and work out a deal that would have protected the Senate. Instead, they chose a course that could only harm the Senate. The responsibility — all of it — rests with them.

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Jonathan Capehart | November 22, 2013