The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why filibuster reform didn’t happen

The news of an agreement that skirts around the edge of reforming Senate filibusters without actually, you know, reforming the filibuster will disappoint liberal Democrats and leave old Senate hands saying "I told you so."

So, why did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) cut a deal on filibuster reform despite having voiced support in the not-too-distant past for the possibility of big changes? We talked to a few smart Democratic political minds and put that question to them.  Their thoughts -- coupled with our own observations -- are below. And, make sure to read Reid's explanation to Wonkblog's Ezra Klein for why he did what he did.

* No one cares about filibuster reform. While that previous sentence is an exaggeration, it's only a slight one.  The people who do care about filibuster reform are liberal activists and liberal donors.  They believe that the rules as they currently stand are a perversion of democracy and must be fundamentally altered. For the rest of the country, however, the filibuster barely registers -- much less the attempts to reform it.  Doubt it? Check out this 2010 Pew poll where just 26 percent of people knew it took 60 votes to break a filibuster. Given that lack of care/concern among the general public, it made little sense for Reid to risk poisoning the Senate well with bigger fights on sequestration and funding the government looming.

* Reid is an institutionalist....: Harry Reid has spent the past three decades of his life in the Senate and, like many of the men and women who have dedicated their lives to the chamber, believes deeply in honoring its traditions. “With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn’t and shouldn’t be like the House," Reid told Ezra. In short: Reid didn't want to be the one who changed the accepted tradition of requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate.  He knew -- rightly -- that invoking that so-called "nuclear option" would not only complicate what he wants to get done in the near term (see above) but also would change the way his Senate legacy is and will be perceived.

*...and Reid is a pragmatist: Reid has been around long enough to know that politics moves in cycles. One day you are the Senate Majority Leader, the next you are the Senate minority leader. (Remember how Republicans were on the cusp of building permanent GOP majorities in 2004? How did that work out for them?) Reid, an astute political strategist in his own right, understands that the 2014 Senate landscape doesn't favor his party and could well lead to Democrats in the minority when the next Congress convenes in early 2015. And, given that, he didn't want to scuttle his own side's ability to slow down/tie up the proceedings if the tables are turned in two years time.

* Baby steps: To quote Bill Murray in "What About Bob": "All I have to do is take one little step at a time and I can do anything." (Incredibly underrated movie, by the way.) A look back at some of the biggest things the Senate has done -- in terms of their impact on history, political and otherwise -- suggests that the first step toward change is the hardest, but once it's made the next steps are easier. The most historically important moment that saw the "baby steps" approach work was the 1957 Civil Rights Act. (And, no, we are not directly equating civil rights with filibuster reform but rather noting it as an example of how the Senate works its will.)  While the 1957 bill was decried as too watered-down to really change much of anything, its passage loosened the gridlock around the issue and led to the far more sweeping 1960 Civil Rights Act.  Reid understood that and figured that taking a single small step on filibuster reform was better than taking no step at all.