Next time you feel the need to bash Reid...

...please read this blog comment from FiveThirtyEight before you do so.

I'd like to offer a contrasting view to [most of] the comments above and Nate's original post. I am a former GOP Senate staffer and thus have a somewhat different perspective on how filibuster situations tend to function.

With respect to Nate's data on filibuster trends, the existence of divided government has a lot to do with the number of filibusters per year. The graph Nate included perfectly correlated with this hypothesis, at least in relative terms. Any time one party controlled the WH and another the Senate, the number of filibusters increased from the preceding year. Further, under divided government, the number of filibusters tends to increase in presidential election years as the parties seek to sharpen their differences and (1) embarrass the other party or (2) highlight to important interest groups that they are working hard on those groups' favored issues. There's some pretty good political science literature out there by Keith Krehbiel on this issue, if you're interested in further reading. I think these are all important background issues to keep in mind when considering the 110th Congress and the question of whether Harry Reid has been an effective majority leader.

Focusing on the 110th Congress, I don't see much evidence that Sen. Reid is to blame for any perceived lack of effectiveness. With only 51 votes in the Senate, Reid's options were severely limited -- yet Nate's post seems to make no allowance for this fact (relative, for instance, to the 55 seat majorities in the 109th, 106th and 105th Congresses where both the total number of filibusters and the number of failed filibusters was markedly lower). Whereas the offering of carrots and threatening with sticks may be effective when the majority party need only pick up four or five votes to attain cloture, that same approach intuitively seems much less useful when the majority needs nine or ten votes to cross the Rule XXII threshold. More than that, I can attest from firsthand experience that holding out is much easier if you aren't the last one needed for cloture. As evidence, look up Sen. Stevens' tirade after the failed ANWR vote in the 109th Congress. Stevens lost by one vote I think (Coleman promised to support Stevens but switched), and Stevens promised intense retribution on the Senate floor. My understanding is that Stevens followed through on his promise via DoD Approps.

Going beyond the numbers and to the substance of this idea that the majority leader can force Senators to read the phone book for hours on end, my suggestion is that people advocating this view fundamentally misunderstand the actual dynamics of the Senate floor. Bill Frist did absolutely everything he could to please the evangelical right during the judicial nomination wars, and only on one or two occasions did Frist actually employ this tactic (in both cases Frist ordered cots brought in, and had Fox News cover the event). On a third instance that I can think of Sen. Reid initiated a sort of counter-filibuster sua sponte, speaking for hours at length about his home town of Searchlight, NV. There's a great exchange in there between Reid and Sen. Roberts ("rock on!"), by the way. In none of these cases did the floor theatrics produce any meaningful change in cloture voting patterns -- though they may have caused southern Dems such as Pryor, Landrieu, Lincoln, and co. to hew a little closer to their states' conservative line.

When a majority leader decides to try and require a filibustering minority to speak at length, here's what actually happens procedurally. First, the leader makes a motion to proceed to the bill in question. The minority objects. So now the pending question is the motion to proceed, and debate on that question begins. Unless the majority leader files for cloture and gets 60 votes, or unless s/he convinces the minority to withdraw their objection, the leader is stuck. So the leader, embracing the strategy Nate now endorses (and which during my time on the Hill was embraced by the hard evangelical right), dispatches a deputy to the floor to continuously make the motion to proceed. As long as there is one R on the floor each time to object, the game is a stalemate. The R's DO NOT have to talk during this stalemate, they don't have to be on the Senate floor, and in fact, the Senate could spend most of the time in a quorum call. The only thing that matters under Rule XXII is that someone be there to object whenever the motion to proceed is made by the majority.

Assuming through some miracle the majority manages to win on the motion to proceed, then the same problem plays out on the actual merits of the bill, on naming conferees, and on the conference report if the bill gets that far. As long as the minority cares more about playing defense than enacting legislation, no amount of carrots or sticks can change this rock-solid reality. Since the 111th Congress GOP, like that in the 110th, seems fixated on this do nothing/re-brand/draw contrasts approach, I'd say Sen. Reid has little in the way of actual leverage through use of theatrics such as those described above.

All of the above is not to say there is no advantage to be had from anti-filibuster theatrics. Certainly the majority can score some press points and interest group points by doing what Nate seems to be suggesting be done. But in terms of actual vote outcomes, my argument is that such tactics will not produce any substantial dividends. I know this because I saw the same story unfold myself under Sen. Frist's tenure.

As Frist, Daschle, Lott, and Dole all found out in good time, the job of Senate majority leader is a very tough one, and one that is almost certain to earn one alienation from both the opposite party and one's own partisan base. The enormous gulf between public perception and reality with respect to floor mechanics/Rule XXII is a big part of that.

No comments: