Reforming the Senate

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 2:31 PM EST

Back in July, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) put a hold on Thomas Shannon, President Obama's nominee for ambassador to Brazil. Why? Not because he was unqualified or anything like that.  It was because Shannon once questioned the value of import tariffs on sugar-based ethanol (mostly from Brazil).  This is heresy in the corn state of Iowa.

In the end, the White House groveled and Grassley relented. But now there's yet another hold.  Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.), who has had six months to cogitate over Shannon's qualifications, says he's placed a hold on his nomination so LeMieux can “discuss my concerns” and “fully vet” him.  Uh huh.

LeMieux can do this because the Senate rules let him.  Just like the Senate rules allow 40 members to block any legislation they want. Earlier today, Matt Yglesias wrote about whether anything can be done about this aside from whining about it in blog posts:

The answer is that yes there is. Key elements of Senate procedure have been altered repeatedly throughout history and there have been failed efforts to do it that might have worked had folks been a bit more determined.

What’s missing right now is any sign from anyone politically important of any interest in turning up the heat. As Chris Bowers explains here it seems to be possible in practice for 50 Senators backed by the Vice President to force basically whatever procedural move they want. Traditionally, that’s not the way things have worked. Instead, having key people talk seriously about going this route has produced a political crisis and encouraged people to cut a deal. That’s how the filibuster got pared back from 67 votes to 60 votes. And it’s also how, as recently as 2005, Senate Democrats were persuaded to relent on several judicial filibusters.

But I’ve seen no sign of a serious public campaign of pressure from Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, or other leading figures to delegitimize this minoritarian obstruction.

Ah, but here's the thing: not only does it take pressure from the Democratic leadership, it also takes 50 Democratic votes.  That's the hard part.  This is just a wild guess, but I'd say that if Team Obama tried to push hard on eliminating the filibuster, they'd get no more than 30 or 35 votes on their side.  Maybe 40.  Even among the majority party, there just isn't very much support for doing away with a procedure that everyone knows they might want to use themselves in the foreseeable future.  Most senators, I think, are far more interested in being assured they can block legislation they dislike than they are in being assured they can pass legislation they favor.

But what about holds?  I'd say there's good news and bad news here.  The bad news is that, if anything, the hold process is nearer and dearer to senators' hearts than the filibuster.  It gives them lots of individual power, lots of authority over home state appointments, and lots of bargaining clout.  It's a personal prerogative that very few of them are willing to give up.

But — I wonder if there isn't some kind of deal that might be made here?  The Shannon case is a good example of abuse gone wild, as is the fate of many of Obama's judicial appointments this year.  Senators aren't likely to give up their power to place holds entirely, but it's possible that a concerted effort might gin up support for a bit of reform.  Maybe stronger limits on the number of holds (so that Grassley and LeMieux couldn't both put a hold on the same guy, for example) or stronger limits on how long holds can last.  The appointment process has become a swamp over the past couple of decades, wasting both the Senate's time as well as preventing the executive branch from operating in a reasonable way, and there just might be enough senators who recognize that to want to do something about it.

In any case, the abuse with holds is more obvious (one guy vs. 40) and the slowdown more routine than it is with filibusters, so it seems like that would be the place to try to put together some kind of reform effort first.  I'm not holding my breath or anything, but I could see this becoming a big enough deal that eventually there's an opportunity to make some change.  Even some Republicans might buy in.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.