Harry Reid's Shortsighted, Narrow Senate Reform Plan

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has spent much of the last week threatening to take a relatively unprecedented step to end gridlock on executive nominees: use a procedure known as the "nuclear option" to change Senate rules related to the filibuster by a simple majority vote. Normally, Senate rules can be changed by only a two-thirds majority. The use of this procedure—which has been talked about and considered in the past—would be a pretty historic, big deal. It's also now looking unlikely to actually happen. The actual impact the proposed rule change would have on Senate gridlock, though? Surprisingly minimal.

That's because Reid has insisted that any change to the Senate rules to allow simple majority voting would only impact executive nominees by a president. In a speech Monday at the Center for American Progress, Reid made it clear that he didn't have interest in pushing for rule changes when it comes to legislation or judicial nominees. On judicial nominees in particular, Reid said:

On judges, I'm comfortable with our doing what we're doing. We have to see what happens, but I'm very comfortable with where we are now, and I'm not—not trying to ask for this other places.

His comfort on judicial nominees looks to be backed up well by data on filibusters in the current Congress. While it's not a perfect metric, we can get a sense of how many filibusters there have been by looking at the number of times cloture has been invoked to shut off debate, or the number of times that cloture motions have been filed to head off the threat of a filibuster. The numbers in the 113th Congress:

Cloture motions filed on judicial nominees: 2 (one—Srikanth Srinivasan—was confirmed in May. The other—Caitlin Joan Halligan—was withdrawn by President Obama after a failed cloture vote).


Cloture motions filed on executive nominees: 9 (the seven Reid is pushing for now, plus Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and CIA Chief John Brennan).

The number of executive nominees who have been held up by potential filibusters already this year is, and under Obama generally is, historically unprecedented, and it stands in big contrast to the two judicial nominees who have been held up this Congress.

But looking at just this Congress is a bit shortsighted. Here's a chart from the Congressional Research Service on cloture motions filed on nominees from 1967 to 2012:



As CRS writes, the cloture motions filed on executive and judicial nominees are comprable. That's especially true of the number of times cloture as been invoked on these nominees. However, it wasn't really until the 111th Congress (when Obama came to the White House) that cloture was sought on executive nominees in larger numbers. 

Cloture motions being filed on Cabinet appointees is also a relatively new phenomenon:



Secretary Hagel and CIA Director Brennan were also added to this list in 2013.

As these tables show, getting nominees through the Senate isn't just a problem for Democrats. It's also been a problem for Republicans, as was made obvious when then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened to use the nuclear option in late 2004 and into 2005 to push through President Bush's judicial nominees.

By just looking at executive nominees, Reid is putting aside recent history on judicial nominees. And even though the judicial situation is better right now, there's no reason to think it can't flip again.

So, why bother with reform at all? Well, for one, the nuclear-option threat seems to have worked to get seven held-up Obama executive appointees through the Senate. For another, both parties are being increasingly blamed for Senate gridlock, as a new Quinnipiac poll shows.

But it's not just the American public that's sick of gridlock. It's American senators, too.

In 2010, The New Yorker's George Packer captured this Senate frustration. Senate newcomers were especially fuming. Colorado's Michael Bennet exemplified this:

Sit and watch us for seven days—just watch the floor. You know what you'll see happening? Nothing. When I'm in the chair, I sit there thinking, I wonder what they're doing in China right now?

According to Packer, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., was so frustrated by gridlock that he "wondered if anyone had ever quit in the first year." Former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., worried that the new Democrats wouldn't stick around the Senate, "because it's not productive."

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has made filibuster reform one of his defining issues since he joined the Senate in 2009. He's been a proponent of changing the filibuster through a similiar technique to the one proposed by Reid, but to institute a "talking filibuster," and not just for executive nominees. Just this January, Udall joined Sens. Jeff Merkley and Tom Harkin in pushing a proposal to reform filibuster rules.

And the frustration isn't unwarranted: just this year, there have been 18 cloture motions filed on legislation in the Senate.

Taking a strong stance on Senate gridlock and use of the filibuster makes sense for Reid to keep his caucus happy, and to let some of the younger, frustrated Democrats blow off some steam. But just pushing on executive nominations isn't the sort of radical change some are making it out to be. The use of the nuclear option definitely could've set a precedent for dealing with judicial nominees later—especially if, under a Republican president, Democrats go back to blocking them in larger numbers. But Reid's bold move doesn't do too much to alter Senate gridlock now, even if there has been a lot of bluster behind it.