U.S. Senate The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body

Mr Smith Goes Washington Filibuster PhotoMy friend and former colleague Steven Taylor offers what he terms “An Extremely Modest Proposal in Regards to the Senate.”  Rather than filibusters and holds,

How about if a Senator has a reason to object to a given nominee that said Senator would, oh I don’t know, maybe take the floor and try to, well, persuade the other Senators that the nominee is, well, not worthy of the job. If one’s argument and evidence is powerful enough, perhaps one could actually form a majority contra the nominee.

If one’s preference is for democracy and efficiency over obstructionism and petty partisanship, Steven’s proposal has a certain appeal.  If your inclination is for very limited governance and extreme deference to the rights of the minority, not so much.

My longstanding position — likely developed during the Clinton administration but maintained through the Republican administration of George W. Bush and the return of Democratic governance under Barack Obama — has been that the filibuster and similar extra-constitutional supermajority requirements should be reserved for truly game-changing legislation.

Presidents should get extreme deference on nominations for executive office and other non-lifetime appointments because the Senate’s role is merely supervisory — to ensure that those chosen are qualified to serve.  For judgeships and other lifetime or very-long-term appointments (say, the FBI Director) Senators should take a more active role but, at the end of the day, the nominees should get an up-or-down straight majority vote.  (Although I’m fine with the informal ability of Senators from a state that a federal district or appeals court judge would have jurisdiction over to have an effective veto, since it’s in keeping with the Senate’s historical role as representing states, not just people.)

As a practical matter, though, it’s nearly impossible to enforce these rules.  Once a precedent of politicizing a nomination is established, it naturally gets cited the next time the partisan shoe is on the other foot.   And the arguments of conservative Republicans as to unfitness would have to be extraordinarily good, indeed, to sway enough of the 59 Democratic Senators to vote against the nominee of a Democratic president.

The modern era of party discipline is such that we may be past the time where persuasion is even possible.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    I agree with your preferences, but see no way to achieve them now. Neither side seems to care that they will run into the same problem when they are in control. I have no idea where this ends.

    What is your take on why Dems have been so reluctant to use reconciliation? Republicans were more confident about using it, even when they had a much smaller majority.

    Steve




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  2. James Joyner says:

    What is your take on why Dems have been so reluctant to use reconciliation? Republicans were more confident about using it, even when they had a much smaller majority.

    I think Republicans had deluded themselves into thinking their majority was permanent, as the Dems had in 1994. Having been back in the majority for only a short time, maybe the Dems haven’t yet succumbed.




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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    While we’re making the Senate more democratic, let’s not forget the notably undemocratic committee chair system.




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  4. john personna says:

    If one’s preference is for democracy and efficiency over obstructionism and petty partisanship, Steven’s proposal has a certain appeal. If your inclination is for very limited governance and extreme deference to the rights of the minority, not so much.

    We might actually be learning otherwise. Even if you prefer small government, broken government might be a worse alternative.

    (We have certainly been taught, for a generation, that deadlock is good … over the same generation that our untamed deficits grew. It could be that was a bad generalization all along.)




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  5. Triumph says:

    The senate is overrun with 59 knuckleheaded liberals. If we want to get anything done, all we need is to get the Dems out of there.




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  6. Even if you prefer small government, broken government might be a worse alternative.

    As one who has a basic preference for smaller government, I have to concur.




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  7. The modern era of party discipline is such that we may be past the time where persuasion is even possible.

    James, nothing can be more certain than predictions of certainty such as this are shortsighted and incorrect. No, this time isn’t any different. If party discipline were all that, then why wasn’t health care reform and cap and trade passed last year?




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  8. So, what is the argument that the government is broken?




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  9. john personna says:

    So, what is the argument that the government is broken?

    We have outcomes that don’t match anyone’s philosophies. They are just where we end up.

    Taxation, spending, and debt, are a prime example.




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  10. Dave Schuler says:

    We have outcomes that don’t match anyone’s philosophies. They are just where we end up.

    This is a feature rather than a bug. To think otherwise is to believe that an outcome that match 50%+1 of the people’s “philosophies” is to be preferred over that preferred by 50%-1.

    And to be honest I don’t believe that most people have philosophies at all. Everyone has preferences but they aren’t necessarily coherent or organized into ideologies.




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  11. john personna says:

    I think you are missing the word “anyone” Dave.

    A rough compromise would be somewhere in the middle. A broken government puts the outcome somewhere off the map.

    Look at healthcare for another example. No one likes the current system. Everyone says it should change. But we can’t get there from here.

    Feature? It is to laugh.




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