Tuesday, March 2, 2010

critical mass for Senate reform?

There are cycles in congressional reform, usually driven by newly empowered members who sense more than usual public disgust with the legislative branch. One such time was 1946; another, 1974-7; more recently, 1995. Maybe we are on the verge of another such time, especially with regard to the Senate.

I'm less troubled than many commentators by the existence of the filibuster in the Senate, for I see it as only one of many devices for delay and I find value in protecting minority views against a political juggernaut. But I would welcome a whole range of Senate rules and procedural reforms to make that body more efficient, including changes that allow obstructive tactics only rarely.

I sense that the Republicans may be overreaching with their vastly increased use of the filibuster and related tactics like "holds" on bills and nominations. That error has been compounded by the dramatic use of obstructive tactics by Senator Jim Bunning [R-KY], who has prevented passage of a bill extending unemployment benefits and funding transportation projects. This is the kind of event that has immediate, tangible consequences to make voters angry and more willing to support reform.

By the way, as the reconciliation process appears to be the likely path for ultimate passage of health care reform legislation, Sam Stein of Huffington Post reminds us that the Vice President is indeed President of the Senate and thereby empowered to make parliamentary rulings that can smooth the passage of such legislation in a rancorous Senate.

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