The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On Senate reform, Dems should aim higher

Last night, the Senate “pulled” an “all-nighter,” meaning there were a couple people shouting at an empty room in shifts. They did this because Democrats partially nuked the filibuster and are trying to get a big slate of nominations through before the winter break, and Republicans are trying to slow things down in protest, which they will continue to do in the days ahead.

Senate Dems have the right idea — getting a big slate of nominations through is an excellent idea. But they should aim higher, and further streamline the process, so that they can fill every vacancy much more quickly.

So here’s what’s happening now, courtesy of CNN:

All-nighters could continue for days. Democratic leaders said they were prepared to stay in session virtually around the clock through Saturday night to confirm a list of 10 nominees to a variety of senior posts. They range from lesser-known appointments — such as Patricia Wald to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board — to critical positions — such as Jeh Johnson to be homeland security secretary.

And why do they need to be in session round the clock? To eat up floor time. You see, Senate Dems didn’t completely kill the filibuster, they just reduced the number needed to break one on nominations from 60 votes to 50 votes. Once it’s broken, you still have a lot of pointless procedural song and dance that takes hours and hours:

According to Senate rules, a certain number of hours of debate can still be demanded by any senator once a filibuster is broken. Known as “post-cloture debate time” in Senate parlance, up to eight hours of debate time is allowed for nine of the 10 nominees on Majority Leader Harry Reid’s list. For Johnson, the homeland security nominee, debate can last for 30 hours.

All in all, Kevin Drum and Ed Kilgore are probably right — all this “protest” is pretty small beans, and is probably more about appeasing the Republican base than successfully blocking anything. But it is still eating up precious floor time. While Senate Democrats are showing admirable persistence in pushing through a whole bunch of nominees at once, a dozen confirmations or so isn’t even close to filling the vacancy hole. According to, there are currently 15 judicial nominees awaiting a floor vote and 51 otherwise pending, which leaves 27 judgeships without even a nomination ready, and dozens of executive branch positions as well.

If we step even slightly back, there’s simply no reason in this age that the a minority of Senators should be able to force eight to 30 hours of “debate” on a simple nomination. If the majority so chooses, they ought to be able stop debate right away, and process these confirmations by the score. We’re headed to a world where if the a majority of Senators and the president agree, then they get to fill as many vacancies as exist, so we might as well just rip off the band-aid. This is quite obviously what Republicans would be doing if the tables were turned.

This does mean that if and when Republicans take power again, they’ll get to appoint their own candidates. But so much the better for American democracy, in my opinion. A dysfunctional system that leaves critical positions empty for years is just plain bad governance. All this is crying out for broader efforts at reform, and the fact that Democrats would get a slew of one-off confirmations would just be a nice perk.