Time for Senate reform

Sandy Levinson makes a good case that Wednesday is the acid test for the Obama administration’s commitment to “Change We Can Believe In.” On Wednesday, the President of the Senate, Vice-President Joe Biden, will be asked to rule that the Senate is a non-continuing body, which he will do if he has any political instincts or a desire to accomplish anything in the next 2 years. That will allow the Senate to set new rules by a simple majority, new rules that would restrict the use of the filibuster and other obstructionist tactics.

This must happen. The last two years have seen a nearly-dysfunctional Senate, with legislation commanding significant support by the American people, passed by the House, and endorsed by a majority of Senators, nonetheless die because of unprecedented acts of obstruction. With a more closely divided Senate, this will only get worse in years to come. The filibuster was an offense against the Constitution for its entire history, but never generated this level of ire because it was never widely used. Now it has been, and now it must die.

Prof. Levinson strikes one false note, writing that after this historic Senate vote:

The President should hold a news conference explaining why reform of the Senate is absolutely essential

The President did this already. It was his 2010 State of the Union, a speech which skillfully built to this conclusion by listing the priorities of the American people, citing legislation passed by the House which would address that need, and then observing that the bill was stalled in the Senate.

Now, the House has passed a jobs bill that includes some of these steps. As the first order of business this year, I urge the Senate to do the same, and I know they will. …

a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America. I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. And this year I’m eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate. …

I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which are a career pathway to the children of so many working families. …

I’ve called for a bipartisan fiscal commission … This can’t be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem [TfK: It was].… the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I’ll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans. …

Of course, none of these reforms will even happen if we don’t also reform how we work with one another. Now, I’m not naïve. I never thought that the mere fact of my election would usher in peace and harmony and some post-partisan era. I knew that both parties have fed divisions that are deeply entrenched. And on some issues, there are simply philosophical differences that will always cause us to part ways. These disagreements, about the role of government in our lives, about our national priorities and our national security, they’ve been taking place for over 200 years. They’re the very essence of our democracy.

But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can’t wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -– a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of I’m speaking to both parties now. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants shouldn’t be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators. …

To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town — a supermajority — then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let’s show the American people that we can do it together.

Sadly, No! called it “a pretty giant F.U. to the Senate.” And it was. The President laid down his marker in the highest profile speech of the year. He told us why reform is essential. It’s time change arrived in the Senate.


  1. #1 Ribi
    January 3, 2011

    I’m not certain that there’s going to be much opposition to a weaker filibuster this time around. The Republicans have a moderately good chance of taking the Senate in 2012; they may just accept this without much of a fight while looking forward to enhanced power in the next term. I’d think we’d be hearing a lot more noise about cooling saucers and Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith if they were amping up for a fight on this.

  2. #2 hsr0601
    January 5, 2011

    Granted the reps are marked by party of just say no,

    “They have exploited and abused Senate rules that are designed to give the minority party a role in the debate. They have dragged the Senate to a standstill on too many occasions, primarily by using the filibuster, which allows senators to hold up legislation and nominees by continuing debate.”

    absolutely agreed.

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