The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Harry Reid was no Mitch McConnell. And that’s a good thing.

Harry M. Reid, the Democratic senator and Senate majority leader at the time, in his Capitol Hill office in 2005. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Robert Mann, a professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and former press secretary for Democratic senators Russell B. Long and John Breaux of Louisiana, is the author of “Backrooms and Bayous: My Life in Louisiana Politics.”

Some might remember the late Harry M. Reid as a partisan, mirror image of Mitch McConnell. The Nevada Democrat, who died Tuesday, did have one thing in common with the Kentucky Republican: a history of service as Senate majority leader. Otherwise, lumping the two together is not only misguided but also reflects an ignorance of Reid’s veneration for the necessity of public faith in the Senate’s ability to function.

It was that veneration — and a bit of hardball politics — that drove Reid to take the step for which he may be most remembered. In 2013, he forced the Senate’s first major filibuster reform in more than a generation, eliminating it for most presidential nominations.

A plain-spoken former boxer, Reid was often a pugilistic partisan who pursued every advantage for his party. But viewing Reid’s opposition to the filibuster only through the lens of partisanship overlooks something important about him.

Like many veteran senators, Reid cared about the institution and wanted to protect its reputation and shape its legacy. The longer he served, Reid came to see the Senate in the same way as another important Democratic Senate leader: former majority whip and vice president Hubert Humphrey.

Like Humphrey, Reid regarded the Senate filibuster not as a foundation of U.S. democracy but as corrosive to its survival. In that sense, Reid’s support for abolishing the filibuster made him a philosophical heir not to such pragmatic nonideological Senate leaders as Lyndon B. Johnson and Bob Dole — men often most concerned with legislative victories.

Instead, he was more like Humphrey, who believed the Senate’s rules and how they inhibited the Senate’s functioning influenced the future of U.S. democracy.

When Senate Democrats changed the filibuster rule, McConnell accused Reid of a “power grab” that would undermine confidence in the Senate. Reid saw it differently. “The American people believe the Senate is broken,” he said, “and I believe the American people are right. … To remain relevant and effective as an institution, the Senate must evolve to meet the challenges of this modern era.”

In that statement, Reid channeled Humphrey, who delivered two Senate speeches opposing the filibuster in 1949, his first year as a senator. Humphrey wanted to pass civil rights legislation, but he also worried about how the filibuster prevented the Senate from debating civil rights and what that signaled about the health of democracy.

“The rules of the Senate are inadequate to meet the needs of the day,” Humphrey said, adding, “I know the Communist Party will now exploit” the Senate’s failure to act. “They will say that America is not interested in the democratic principles of liberty and equality. They will say that Soviet Russia and not America is the true friend of the millions of colored people in the world.”

Reid, in his farewell Senate speech in December 2016, warned about the damage the Senate’s reliance on the filibuster would inflict on the body. “This is something that you have to work on together because if you continue to use it the way it has been used recently, it is really going to affect this institution a lot,” Reid said, lamenting the Senate’s inability to consider legislation to eliminate “the outrageous amount of money from sources that are dark, unknown, and now involved in our federal elections.”

As Humphrey had done 67 years earlier, Reid also evoked Russia, though in a different way. “If we don’t do something about this vast money coming into our elections, in a couple of more election cycles, we are going to be just like Russia,” he said. “We are going to have a plutocracy — a few rich guys telling our leader what to do.”

In Reid’s worry about plutocracy, one also hears the faint echo Humphrey’s master’s thesis at Louisiana State University, “The Political Philosophy of the New Deal,” in which the future senator argued that by saving and reforming American capitalism, President Franklin D. Roosevelt also saved U.S. democracy. The New Deal “maintains that if democracy is to continue as our form of government, democratic processes must not be restrained by outworn and antiquated limitations,” Humphrey wrote. “Mere form and tradition must not be permitted to deny government those powers which are essential for the maintenance of social justice.”

Arguing for abolishing the filibuster in an op-ed for the Las Vegas Sun in September, Reid struck a similar theme: The majority wants political and economic reforms — and the filibuster stands in the way. “The sanctity of the Senate is not the filibuster,” he wrote. “The sanctity of the Senate — in government as a whole — is the power it holds to better the lives of and protect the rights of the American people.”

Mitch McConnell usually takes a utilitarian view of the Senate and its rules: They’re just tools for passing legislation important to his party. Reid thought the Senate was better and more important than that. Like Humphrey, he believed the health of U.S. democracy itself relied on a healthy, functioning Senate.