During his 2012 campaign, U.S. Senate candidate Angus King championed filibuster reform, repeatedly citing the maneuver as contributing to the Senate’s gridlock by granting each senator a de facto pocket veto on almost any legislation, nomination or motion he found objectionable.
As King and others note, abuse of the filibuster is a relatively recent phenomenon. Lyndon Johnson faced exactly one as Senator majority leader from 1955 to 1961, whereas current Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., cites 420 instances during his tenure.
King is right to push for needed reforms, but in the current Washington political environment, it’s unlikely even the most carefully considered filibuster modifications could remedy the Senate’s persistent dysfunction.
Just last week, as a result of unprecedented Republican obstructionism, Reid pursued the so-called “nuclear option,” potentially changing Senate filibuster rules to allow approval of the president’s executive nominees with 51 votes, a simple majority.
Current rules require a 60-vote supermajority to get anything done in the Senate. Had Reid gone nuclear, it would have upended the Senate’s historic commitment to minority party rights and poisoned an atmosphere already bordering on toxic. Thankfully, the crisis was averted largely as a result of a rare bipartisan caucus meeting held Monday night in the Old Senate Chamber.
Without staff or press, but with the weight of the Senate’s history surrounding them, 98 of our U.S. senators did something increasingly rare: They quietly and attentively listened to one another.
Monday’s meeting was apparently so uniquely healthy and productive that it generated a sort of wonder among Senators, with Republicans and Democrats alike calling for more regular opportunities to listen and learn from one another.
That reaction is illustrative of the Senate’s deep, institutional partisan divide, as well as the increasing lack of personal relationships that make public vilification and fiery rhetoric all too convenient. But senators discovered Monday night that such derision and disparagement are markedly more difficult face to face.
In fact, as a result of an agreement struck the very next day, the Senate confirmed Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with 66 votes after a two-year delay and agreed to up-or-down votes on National Labor Relations Board nominees before August. But while the senators avoided the nuclear trigger and made some progress on the president’s nominees, they moved not an inch toward substantive filibuster reform.
Instead, Reid said Democrats will keep the nuclear option at the ready, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell noted Republicans are still prepared to use all procedural mechanisms at their disposal.
So what did the Senate actually accomplish on Monday and Tuesday? According to King, while Monday’s meeting didn’t result in concrete changes to Senate rules, the event and subsequent agreement qualify as filibuster reform because they created “attitude reform.”
King, who still believes real filibuster reforms are needed, acknowledges that the rules themselves aren’t necessarily as problematic as the abuse of those rules. And it’s that abuse that repeatedly drives the Senate to the nuclear brink.
King believes that Monday’s meeting will result in greater circumspection among Republicans over the filibuster, with restraint stemming from both fidelity to the institution and comity with fellow senators. Whether that attitude adjustment persists long term is, King admits, anyone’s guess.
The recovering political operative in me maintains a healthy skepticism. Both the House and Senate have shown an increasing penchant for governing-by-crisis, careening from one brinkman-like moment to the next for the purpose of extracting even the smallest, most ideological gains.
What’s more, there is an increasing population of Republican senators and House members who run for office for the sole purpose of tearing government down. These anti-government crusaders care little for the long-worn history and traditions of Congress. For them, compromise is defeat, gridlock is success and the ends justify the means.
As these extreme elements wield increasing power, the Senate’s storied veterans gradually retire and pragmatic Republicans are primaried out of office, it’s comparatively easy to imagine a Republican-controlled Senate, especially backed by a Republican president, exercising the nuclear option at their whim.
Also, as King points out, even if the filibuster were flawlessly reformed by the smartest minds in Washington, there are still innumerable ways for senators committed to gridlock to achieve their end.
Nevertheless, I am willing to cast off my cynicism for the time being, channel my inner Angus King and believe we’ve seen the smallest crack in the Senate’s debilitating partisanship that could — just maybe — give rise to a new, pragmatic governing coalition.
Perhaps we all could use some “attitude reform.”
Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at: