The Shocking Solution to Senate Obstructionism
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Senate reform is a hot topic. David Waldman has two great posts this week, one on the filibuster crazy GOP and another on the use of anonymous holds. The second explains how proposed reforms are basically meaningless PR because anonymous holds are already not permitted. So at least some delaying tactics can be stopped, but they still go on. Here is why: Senators like the filibuster. Democrats like it. Republicans like it. Senators have a downright regal sense of self regard. They may be frustrated by particular instances of obstruction, and individual Senators may seem like sensible folks with low maintenance egos, but get them inside the building and all of a sudden it's the World's Greatest Deliberative Body and the Cooling Saucer* where comity is worshipped.
As I have written, it is all vanity. It gives them endless opportunities to flatter each other, cater to each other's tender feelings and delicate sense of decorum, and generally act like a bunch of insufferable snots - consequences be damned. As a bonus, there is always the chance that your number will come up on some issue and suddenly you have the leadership or (be still my heart) an entire caucus falling all over themselves to fawn over you. Who doesn't like getting lots of special attention?
Even assuming Senate Democrats wanted to stop the stalling, there is another obstacle: timidity. They are terrified of unpleasantness. Anything that provokes a temper tantrum on the right causes them to spring in to action to placate the GOP. The noise is simply intolerable. They do not care if they do the right thing, they just want it to stop. Which is what leads them to vote to defund ACORN over a fraud or condemn rhetoric by liberals that has been gleefully used by conservatives. They just want quiet.
They are as bad on substance. As Dan Froomkin put it, "[Rahm] Emanuel is a Bush Democrat - but not in that he has learned the lesson about the value of holding firmly to core values. He is a Bush Democrat in that he has allowed Republicans to traumatize him into submission." On national security, civil rights, torture, you name it: They are terrified of being characterized as weak, and unwilling to challenge what "weak" really is.
With those enormous caveats in mind, here is how they could overcome Republican defiance. First, identify an ordinary nominee. Pat Leahy's office helpfully published just such a list, so let's start at the top: Barbara Milano Keenan. I had not heard her name before, nor I suspect have most people.
Next, begin the confirmation process - and put all other business on hold until it passes. (This would cause the mother of all hissy fits, which I am sure would be intolerable to Senate Democrats' fragile nerves, but let me dream, OK?) Make them do an actual filibuster on it. Here is Jonathan Bernstein (via) on why it will not work: "it is true that if the minority couldn't keep forty-one Senators on board that they could be defeated. However, that seems highly unlikely in general[.]" I disagree, particularly as it dragged on. Seeing day after day of a whole parade of Republicans collaborating to prevent the confirmation of Barbara Milano Keenan - whom most Americans would not know if they woke up in bed with - would cause an increasingly widespread reaction to set in: "What the hell is wrong with them?"
If Democrats could muster the courage (again, I know, dream) to stare them down, Republicans would take an absolutely massive hit in public opinion. When a vote finally happened they could either vote as a bloc, reinforcing the bad reputation, or vote to approve and look like hypocrites.
That is step one. Once Keenan was confirmed, go to the next name on the list. Rinse and repeat until the list is cleared. Then move on to more prominent nominees, like Dawn Johnsen for OLC. If they obstruct, more bad PR: "Why will they allow a vote on Barbara Milano Keenan but not on Dawn Johnsen? Johnsen is eminently qualified etc. etc." Keep moving up the ladder until the big issues like health care, financial reform and jobs bills are on the plate. At that point they will have enough of a track record to not be able to claim principle for any kind of roadblock. Either they engage or they further cement their reputation for corrosive cynicism.
To repeat: This is all predicated on the idea that Senate Democrats want to challenge delaying tactics and possess the backbone to see a confrontation through. The point is that they have the tools at their disposal right now. Anyone who talks about additional reforms as a solution is just blowing smoke.