Why Filibuster Reform Is the Old Senate’s Official Death Notice

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Nov. 21 2013 8:20 PM

The Old Senate Was Already Dead

Passing filibuster reform just made it official.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks to members of the media.
Harry Reid signed the death certificate.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

If West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd were still in the Senate, it would be fascinating to see which side of the recent filibuster debate he would take. Byrd was a defender of Senate traditions, which caused him to warn his Democratic colleagues against changing the filibuster rules, but as majority leader, it was Byrd who in 1980 pushed to weaken filibuster rules. Whatever his view, Byrd’s baroque oration would have drawn from Shakespeare (he quoted from all 37 plays in his 50-year career) and Cicero. But Byrd passed away three years ago. The Senate club whose rules he knew so well and righteously defended passed away some time ago too, though the exact date is not known. So today's change was merely a rule that codified an established fact: The Senate club is no longer what it once was. Or, as Byrd might put it, today's change made what was de facto now de jure.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

In the old Senate, the rules and customs created a culture of comity and bipartisanship. Little can be done in the Senate without unanimous consent of its members. That is one of its bedrock principles, which means each senator has tremendous power, but also has a certain amount of responsibility to keep the place humming. In return for such power, senators are supposed to follow the established norms of regular order, give extra weight to the views of veteran members, and shave off their partisan edges. Vice President Biden tells a story of being a young member of the Senate and saying something derogatory about North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. Sen. Mike Mansfield, the Democratic leader, told Biden to knock it off. "Everyone's sent here for a reason, because there's something in them that their folks like," he told the young Delaware senator. "Don't question their motive."

That club doesn’t exist anymore. The traditions are still there—senators are not supposed to refer to each other by first name—but as the memories about political slights grow longer than the memories of maintaining time-honored institutional traditions, the place has changed. In part, that's because the keepers of the partisan grudges live throughout the country. The Senate club is much smaller and younger and more receptive to their pressure. Only 32 members of the Senate have served at least three terms, down from 44 just six years ago. More than half of the senators have served one full term or less. 

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As my colleague David Weigel writes, on the Democratic side this shift means there are more new Democrats pushing for filibuster reform. On the Republican side, the new ways showed themselves during the government shutdown. Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee essentially took control of the Senate for a period, leading the movement to tie funding the government to defunding Obamacare. It wasn't a success, but they got further than they would have in the old days. Leaders like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell face Tea Party challenges from the grass roots that limit what they can do in the Senate for fear of reprisals back home. Though incumbents still have plenty of protections, voters don't reward longevity as they once did. Committee chairmen who once controlled legislation and were more powerful than their party leaders have been neutered, which means a young upstart can make a name for himself and gain power by going on cable TV much faster than working patiently within the system to become a chairman. Following the rules of the greenroom can do more for your career than following the rules of the cloakroom. Among the things that have also died is the restrained use of the filibuster.

This change weakens the minority’s argument against the majority pushing filibuster reform—in the long run, this will hurt you because you'll be in the minority one day, too. The old Senate was like a game of baseball—long, with lots of beer, time for conversation, lead changes, and occasional moments of excitement. The Senate today feels more like football—every play is combat, clash, and action of the moment. Given this pace, grab your chance to change the rules now because your opponent is going to change them in the future anyway. 

As Majority Leader Harry Reid orchestrated the change in the rules governing executive nominations and lower-court appointments, his opponents cried tyranny, though they also promised that when they took power they would go further, applying the new standard to Supreme Court nominations. In other words, tyranny—but we promise we'll give you more of it. The new rules fit with that kind of Senate. 

When the Senate club does work, it's a shadow of its former self. The most recent example was the deal between Reid and McConnell to end the government shutdown. It was heralded as a model of cooperation and adult behavior. Members took to the floor to celebrate their ability to come together.It was almost like they had achieved something like Medicare or the Civil Rights Act. What they had achieved was simply that they had ended a government shutdown, which their members had helped launch in the first place. The Senate's job is to produce a budget, and instead its members could not rally fast enough to stop a shutdown that cost the economy $24 billion and 120,000 jobs. For stopping shy of $25 billion, they were congratulating themselves. Why are you hitting your head with that hammer? Because it feels good when I stop. 

Whoever is ultimately at fault for the rule change—the Democrats who forced it or the Republicans who blocked the nominations requiring the new rules—the result is that the minority will have less power. That means elections will matter even more than they did before. Every Republican campaign now has more incentive to fight harder to win the six seats needed to take back the Senate in the 2014 election. Presidential elections now mean more, too. Reid’s move will secure Obama's legacy because the new nominees to the appeals court will be in a position to protect his achievements. Moderate senators will hold more power. Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor and Joe Manchin voted against the rule change. In the future, in a closely divided Senate, they are the kind of senators who will be the key vote to give or deny the majority their nominee. Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat, also voted against the new rules, but he's retiring, making way for another rookie. If the rookie is a Republican, one of his or her first tasks may be changing the rules again.

Listen to this Gabfest Extra on the Senate’s "nuclear option.”