The Corner

Gulp. I Agree With the Democrats on Filibuster Reform

Or, at least, I’m inclined to on first blush. Here’s what the package on offer by Senate Democrats Tom Harkin (Iowa), Tom Udall (N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) would do: 

–End the filibuster on motions to proceed (since this amounts to unlimited debate on whether to allow debate at all).

–Make all filibusters on substantive measures “talking” or “Jimmy Stewart” filibusters; Senators much actually stand and hold the floor. (How it works now is senators essentially jutannounce their intention to block proceedings and then go grab a sandwich.)

–When cloture is secured on judicial and other nominees, post-cloture debate is limited to two hours instead of the present 30 (since nominations aren’t subject to the same amendments that bills and other measures are)

–Eliminate secret ‘holds’, requiring senators to attach their names to efforts to block nominees

–Force the majority to allow the minority to offer at least three germane amendments to any bill (rather than the majority ‘filling the tree’ to shut out the minority, a Harry Reid specialty).

There’s a lot to like there. I’ve long favored the “talking filibuster” model since it is a) the way the rule was originally designed and b) is a natural check on abuse. No major GOP filibuster of the last four years — think Obamacare — would have gone any differently under a talking filibuster; when the stakes are high enough the minority should be able to rouse a rotation of senators to hold the floor. The end of the filibuster on motions to proceed I’m more ambivalent about. There is certainly an element on commonsense logic here. But filibustering motions to proceed has long been a tool to force the majority to give the minority amendments as a condition for allowing debate to proceed (more on that below). I like that, and I favor a slow Senate in general, just not a glacial one. I’d have to think more about the balance here. Same goes for the limitation on post-cloture debate for nominees.

Making holds transparent just seems like an undeniably good idea, and I suspect it would get broad bipartisan support if brought up as a standalone.

And guaranteeing the minority three germane amendments to all bills could also be really good. For one thing, it probably favors Republicans more than Democrats, since the Harry Reids of the world block Republican amendments not just because they delay final passage, but because they often actually have a chance of passing. That is, it is a feature of our political landscape that there will almost always be more Ben Nelsons than Olympia Snowes — more Democrats willing to vote with Republicans than vice versa. Again, think about how this could have changed the way Obamacare played out. My concern would be that majorities and their parliamentarian gimps would find a way to define “germane” down to nothing. I’d have to look into it.

A final point: With a Republican House, these rule changes don’t bring much in the way of short-term risk. Nothing is going to get to the president’s desk that otherwise wouldn’t have.

I do have procedural concerns with the way the Democrats are going about securing these rule changes (which Duncan outlines here). But the bottom line is, there is more good than bad in this package, and in my view, it is probably worth supporting.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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