« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - The Senate and its rules

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The simple, lazy analysis is to look at the rank hypocrisy behind yesterday’s U.S. Senate rule change on judicial and cabinet nominees. 52 democrats voted for it. Each and every one who was a U.S. Senator in 2005 is on the record supporting the filibuster when Republicans had the majority. Then-Senator Obama warned back then that gridlock will get worse if the rules are changed. Eight years ago Harry Reid gave a long floor speech saying that using raw majorities to push legislation through was contrary to the traditions of the senate.

I’m more interested in the political calculations that go into such naked flip-flops.

Here are a few possibilities:

First, and the simplest explanation – among the great unwashed (the voters) – the issue tests well. Most people who didn’t take civics probably don’t understand filibusters and cloture. If you ask them ‘Is 51-49 fair?”, they’d answer ‘yes’. This rule change has already pushed the Obamacare rollout further down in the news cycle. Perhaps it 

There’s also the possibility that internal polling shows an ugly 2014 election, where democrats have to defend 21 seats and republicans have to defend only 14. Perhaps they know that a year from now none of the President’s nominees are getting through the Senate. I’m not sure this is the case. Dems may lose North Dakota and Louisiana… but may pick up seats in Maine. There are 45 Republicans in the Senate now. I think the GOP will gain seats, but 6 is a tall order.

The rules change could be a ‘rally the base’ strategy. Liberals were demoralized that the health care rollout was so badly bungled. This reenergizes them. And the democrat-left already feels the White House hasn’t delivered enough of what was expected.

It may be a simple case of arrogance. Our ideas are right. We won the election. We need to bulldoze those who might block our agenda. With the House safely in GOP hands, the President will need a fully staffed bureaucracy and judiciary to advance his ideas. And in a divided government, the balance of power lies in the rule-making powers within the executive branch.

I think there’s truth in all of those explanations.

As usual, Democrats are sufficiently ruthless. Republicans aren’t.  The GOP could simply shut down the Senate --- blocking all legislation until the old rules-of-order are restored. Legislation still needs 60 votes. Committee hearings need unanimous consent before they can begin each day’s work. Nominees still face open-ended questioning and hearings before coming up for floor votes. If the Republicans are planning to use any or all of those levers of power, they aren’t saying so publicly. Passive elephants, aggressive donkeys – again.

Chris Conley
11.22.13