Saturday, December 29, 2012

weak tea for Senate reform

The procedural reforms most likely to be approved by the Senate on January 3 are pretty weak, but better than nothing. Although a group of newer members, all Democrats, may have 51 votes for their more consequential  proposals, several senior Senators from both parties would prefer to avoid the precedent of a rules change by majority vote. Instead, this group, led by Senator Carl Levin [D-MI] and John McCain [R-AZ], has developed a proposal that changes the Standing Orders just for the 113th Congress. Those orders are usually adopted by unanimous consent, but could be filibustered.

The Levin-McCain proposal would end filibusters on motions to proceed to bills and nominations and would allow two amendments each for the majority and minority. This change would still allow filibusters, which would still require 60 votes to end, but could reduce the total number of filibusters. The proposal also limits filibusters on motions involving conferences with the House to resolve differences.

To speed up consideration of nominations -- except for cabinet officers and federal judges -- the proposal would automatically put the names of nominees for over 500 positions automatically on the Senate calendar, thus bypassing committees and possible delays at that level.

Levin and McCain encourage but don't require opponents to show up and debate when they mount a filibuster. They also require objectors to unanimous consent agreements to come to the Senate floor and voice their positions.

I wish the reformers had gone further, but this is the way the Senate usually handles pressure for reform: avoiding direct confrontations and worrisome precedents by developing alternatives informally. Since this is the most we are likely to get, I hope it doesn't get derailed in the chaos of dealing with the fiscal cliff as one congress ends and a new one begins.

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