Archive for November 21st, 2013

The Incredible Shrinking Senate

Harry Reid (D-Mendacity) continues the abdication of Senatorial privilege and responsibility to the executive with his mid-session revision of the Senate rules regarding nominations:

The partisan battles that have paralyzed Washington in recent years took a historic turn Thursday, as Senate Democrats eliminated filibusters for most presidential nominations, severely curtailing the political leverage of the Republican minority in the Senate and assuring an escalation of partisan warfare.

Saying that “enough is enough,” President Obama welcomed the end of what he called the abuse of the Senate’s advise and consent function, which he said had turned into “a reckless and relentless tool” to grind the gears of government to a halt.

While “neither party has been blameless for these tactics,” Obama said in a statement to reporters at the White House, “today’s pattern of obstruction .?.?. just isn’t normal; it’s not what our founders envisioned.” He cited filibusters against executive branch appointments and judicial nominees on grounds that he said were based simply on opposition to “the policies that the American people voted for in the last election.”

“This isn’t obstruction on substance, on qualifications,” he said. “It’s just to gum up the works.”

I can’t add much to what the redoubtable Dan Hannan said almost immediately afterwards during an interview on Fox News.  He remarked that the president was lacking in one of the most important qualities of public service – the humility of the knowledge that you are passing through institutions that are bigger than you, and that changing the rules because you don’t get your own way is paving the way for what the Founders would have called arbitrary rule.

Of greater interest to me is why the President of the United States has anything at all to say about Senate rules is beyond me.  I understand this is a president who feels the obligation to opine on just about anything, down to and including local criminal cases.  (The singular exception to this garrulousness seems to have been the Iranian democracy movement in 2009.)  But this is more than that.  This is collaboration with Senate leadership to transfer more and more power to the executive branch.  Over time, the Senate will find itself less and less able to exercise its role as part of a co-equal branch of government.

We already saw some of that during the 17% “shutdown” of the federal government, which affected so little of its functions that President Obama found it necessary to go out of his way to inconvenience citizens in order to remind them that there was actually a “shutdown” in progress.

There is no reason at all to believe that this is a temporary change.  Since it can only be changed by the majority, it is hard to imagine circumstances under which the majority would cede additional power to the minority. Indeed, since the Senate minority’s leverage in any negotiation derives almost exclusively from its ability to filibuster, the incentive will be for the majority to continue to roll back the filibuster from more and more cases.

The one bright spot is that three Democrat senators, Manchin (WV), Levin (MI), and Pryor (AR) voted with the Republicans.  Since the Senate has traditionally operated in a less party-line fashion than the House, there’s some hope than in a future negotiation, some majority members might be persuaded to restore nomination filibusters as the price for votes on some other issue.  If the Republicans don’t take the Senate back in 2014, though, we’ll be looking at a Decade of Reid, and an increasing number of younger senators who will long not with nostalgia, but with contempt, at the more collegial days gone by.

Harry Reid has been consistently willing to shrink the Senate as a body in order to cede power to a friendly president.  He may have responsibilities to a president of his party.  Even in the 1950s, Allen Drury would write in Advise and Consent that the Senate Majority leader’s job was, in part, to pilot the President’s program through the Senate.

But Harry Reid is not Prime Minister.  He’s Majority Leader of the US Senate, elected by the Senate Majority, with responsibilities to that body that extend beyond any transient partisan advantage he can gain by ceding them to the President.

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