The good news for proponents of improving the Senate's dysfunctional rules is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) struck an agreement that will bring new reforms to the chamber. The bad news is, these reforms are modest, narrow, and leave most of the Senate's most glaring flaws untouched.
Ryan Grim and Sam Stein have the scoop this morning.
The pressure from the liberal senators, led by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley and backed by a major coalition of progressive groups, created the political space for Reid to cut the deal with McConnell, which does include changes to how the Senate operates, but leaves a fundamental feature, the silent filibuster, in place.
The problem is not that the apparent agreement includes misguided reforms, but rather, that these reforms simply don't go far enough. The provisions reached in this deal have real merit, but so do other proposals that will have to wait for another day (and another Congress).
For example, what happened to the "talking filibuster" sought by many reform advocates? As expected, it's not part of the deal. Grim and Stein note, however, a related change: "First, senators who wish to object or threaten a filibuster must actually come to the floor to do so. And second, the two leaders will make sure that debate time post-cloture is actually used in debate. If senators seeking to slow down business simply put in quorum calls to delay action, the Senate will go live, force votes to produce a quorum, and otherwise work to make sure senators actually show up and debate."
Of course, the "talking filibuster" isn't the only proposed change that was left on the negotiating-room floor. Reform-minded Democrats also wanted to change filibuster procedure to force the minority to produce 41 votes to block action on a bill or nomination, as opposed to forcing the majority to produce 60 votes. That was scuttled, too.
But there are some improvements that will make the chamber at least somewhat more efficient.
For example, filibusters on motions to proceed -- demanding unlimited debate on whether to have a debate -- have always been the hardest thing for obstructionists to defend, and they will be largely eliminated going forward.
Similarly, post-cloture delays on district court nominees will be curtailed -- under the current rules, after a filibuster on a district court nominee is defeated, the minority could bring the chamber to a halt for 30 hours, but under the new reforms, it's just two hours. (Update: for sub-cabinet nominees, it's eight hours, and for cabinet and appeals court nominees, it's still 30.)
When I talked to some Democratic staffers on the Hill, they seemed eager to defend these changes, and I'll gladly concede something is better than nothing. I can remember plenty of times in the last four years in which Reid would bring an uncontroversial judicial nominee to the floor and the confirmation process would take four or five days -- Republicans just wanted to run the clock, stopping the Senate from working on something else, even on nominees they intended to support. Often, Reid just wouldn't bother bringing up nominees at all, because he couldn't afford to kill a whole legislative week for one judge.
This new agreement will largely prevent this from happening, and I'm glad.
But filibuster abuses have broken the Senate, and this deal barely touches filibuster rules at all. Republicans will still demand mandatory supermajorities to pass every bill of any consequence, which is an untenable system -- the Senate wasn't designed to work this way, for generations it didn't work this way, and as has become obvious, it can't work this way.
And yet, that status quo remains unaffected.
There will be ample discussion over why Reid chose this narrow path, as opposed to forcing sweeping reforms through the "constitutional option" (or "nuclear option") he'd already threatened to use, and at this point, we don't know exactly why the Majority Leader didn't pull the trigger. It's possible he just didn't want to deal with the likely fallout, in the form of GOP apoplexy, and it's possible reformers didn't have quite as many votes as they'd hoped.
Either way, I should also note that incremental steps forward can in time lead to more meaningful change. The effort to reform the Senate's dysfunction drew more attention in recent months than it's ever generated before, and more Americans are now engaged on a procedural issue that, in the very recent past, was invisible to the mainstream. I'd like to think senators and Senate candidates will start to be asked about their opinions on reform in future primaries and elections, too.
There is, in other words, a growing public appetite for improving the broken Senate. Here's hoping today's small step is the first of many more in the near future.