How do you solve a problem like the Senate?
But it is at least possible to conceive of change. As the nation grapples with an economic crisis unlike any we have seen for at least three decades, the procedural regime that we have created will be tested like never before. If Senate Republicans decide to take a dramatic stand against Obama’s proposals (at least those proposals that are left out of the budget reconciliation process), it would be possible that interest groups struggling to pass much-needed legislation–such as organized labor or environmental organizations–could make filibuster reform a top priority. They could bring pressure on legislators as the 2010 midterms approach.
This is exactly what happened in the 1950s and 1960s, when Southern Democrats used the filibuster to block the prime objective of liberals, civil rights. One can almost imagine MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann channeling Roger Mudd and beginning his nightly news show with a clock showing how long Senate Republicans had filibustered a second round of economic stimulus legislation as the government released reports on falling home prices and rising unemployment. Even the possibility of reform could be enough to cause Senate Republicans to back down from using the filibuster device on each and every bill.
The Administration learned during its first few months that the institutional design of the Senate has created an environment where the minority can be a powerful opposition force, and united Republicans are particularly effective at using this design against a more divided Democratic Party. While it is true that Democrats will one day be in the minority again, it is worth it for them to think about whether Americans of either party are happy with the kind of Senate that they have had since the late 1980s, an institution where it takes 60 votes to obtain passage of almost any kind of legislation. This is anti-majoritarianism on steroids. Democrats might want to consider taking the risk of pushing for a return to the more majoritarian system we had before the 1990s, one where the filibuster was a powerful tool but limited in use–perhaps by allowing more kinds of legislation to be handled under the reconciliation process–in exchange for accepting the realistic possibility that one day they will be on the losing end of this process.
Democrats can’t afford to ignore how the current legislative process adversely impacts policymaking. Despite the dramatic results of the 2008 election and the eviscerated condition of the GOP, as well as public opinion that reveals support for most of the key Democratic initiatives, Obama had little choice but to compromise with a handful of centrists on the size of his economic stimulus bill and he has not had smooth sailing for his health care or his energy plans. The decision to use reconciliation for health care shows that Democrats are prepared to take bolder procedural action. The resolution of Al Franken’s election to the Senate, which brought Democrats to 60 votes, also slightly diminished the pressure to use reconciliation. But reconciliation can’t be used all the time and for every policy. Democrats, and Republicans, will have to find a way to restore some modicum of majoritarian influence to the Senate to begin revitalizing the decision-making capacity of Congress and to diminish the sense of urgency for using more drastic options–from reconciliation to executive power–to handle the nation’s problems.
Post a Comment