Ten Miles Square


December 17, 2012 10:08 AM “Change in Behavior, Not a Change in Rules”

By Jonathan Bernstein

That’s what Lamar Alexander said that the Senate needs.

Truth is, he’s right! The best possible solution to the currently dysfunctional Senate would be for the minority party to return to how things were before 1993 — a Senate in which majorities regularly passed bills, and in which nominations were usually confirmed without a whole lot of trouble and almost always by majority vote.

The problem?

That’s not going to happen. And Lamar Alexander isn’t going to try to make it happen, as far as I can tell. Republicans, beginning in 1993 under Bob Dole and then in 2009 under Mitch McConnell, decided to exploit the rules to turn the Senate into a body in which everything needed 60 votes. It never had been that before. Is Alexander willing to commit to voting for cloture on all but a handful of top priorities, even if he opposes the underlying bill or nomination? Is he willing to find a half-dozen Republicans to join him? I don’t think so.

Now, Alexander says he’s open to rules changes but is fully opposed to majority-imposed rules changes; he believes that once that’s done, it’s only a matter of time before the majority goes the rest of the way and eliminates the filibuster completely. I think that may be correct.

So if that’s what he really believes, Alexander shouldn’t just be open to rules change; he should be actively pushing changes that would retain what he sees as the Senate’s strengths, and rounding up Republicans to get those changes passed.

Indeed: in my view, the real threat of “the Senate becomes just like the House” isn’t from one use of majority-imposed rules reform; it’s from the status quo. The bottom line, as I’ve said many times, is that majority party Senators probably don’t want a House-like Senate, but they’ll prefer it to a Senate that can’t get anything done at all. Want to save the Senate, Lamar Alexander? Reform it.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • Scott on December 19, 2012 4:15 PM:

    I live in TN - Alexander is, sadly, one of my Senators. He typically talks out of both sides of his mouth and while saying the Senate needs to change their behavior, you don't see him running to the minority leader and telling him not to filibuster or put private holds on every bill. They can't even fill all the empty judicial positions because these petulant children want to take their balls and go home.