Is filibuster reform really coming?

Harry Reid says so — in fact, as Suzy Khimm reported earlier this week, he keeps saying so. He’s been saying for a while now that he thinks it was a mistake not to do serious reform at the beginning of this Congress, and he now promise that reform is coming if the Democrats keep control of the Senate

There are a few things to note here. First of all, on legislation, the filibuster almost certainly had no more than symbolic importance during the current Congress. Without the filibuster, the Senate would have passed quite a few more bills . . . but instead of dying on the Senate floor, they would have died between chambers. The Senate could have passed President Obama’s jobs bill or parts of it 33 times, but they can’t force the House to act, just as the House can’t force the Senate to act on health-care reform repeal. If we have a status quo election, with Democrats holding the White House and the Senate while Republicans keep their majority in the House, then the filibuster matters most on appointments, not bills.

The second is that whether reform will really happen or not depends, beyond the election, on whether rank-and-file senators want it. And that will mostly depend on whether Democratic-aligned interest groups make it a priority. As Khimm reports, that may be happening:

Fix the Senate Now — a progressive coalition including the Communications Workers of America, the Sierra Club and Common Cause — is reconvening this week in an attempt to revive the issue.

And the third point is that there are lots of possible reforms out there. Some would be excellent, such as returning to majority voting on executive branch nominations. Some would turn the Senate into a second House, with majority party rule; I think that’s a real mistake. And some sound great to lots of people but would do very little in practice, such as the “Fix the Senate Now” proposals to eliminate secret holds.

I’m a bit surprised that reform appears to be gaining momentum among liberals despite divided government and the very real possibility of unified Republican control next year. But if it is picking up momentum, then it’s time for everyone to focus now on exactly what reform should accomplish and exactly how to get there — and pushing Democratic senators and Senate candidates to support reform. Senate reform can mean lots of different things, and everyone interested in making the chamber work better should think very carefully about exactly what they want the Senate to do within the overall system, and how to get there.

The big thing I’d say, however, is that there’s no such thing as an ideal democratic method for running a legislative body, and anyone who thinks that there is should step back and think it through more carefully. To me, the goal should be in finding ways to exploit the strengths of the Senate (a relatively small body, made up of people who represent large, internally diverse districts). My own emphasis based on that would be on finding ways to augment the influence of intense majorities on legislation without destroying the influence of intense minorities — a tricky thing, to be sure. Others may differ. The key here is that if reform is coming, now is the time to put in the effort to figure out exactly what a reformed Senate should look like.