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Democrats need to reform the Senate now — before Republicans do
President Obama's legacy may very well hang in the balance
 
Come on, Reid, your country is weeping.
Come on, Reid, your country is weeping. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Several recent developments have brought into stark relief the fact that our Senate is a smoking jalopy of an institution that is badly in need of reform, even after Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) moved to weaken the filibuster several months ago. And if Democrats don't get to it first, then count on Republicans beating them to the punch if they ever manage to wrest control of the government.

First, a banal bipartisan measure in favor of energy efficiency went down to a threatened Republican filibuster because the GOP insisted on stringing a bunch of EPA-crippling amendments to it. Second, when Federal Reserve Board member Jeremy Stein steps down at the end of the month, the board of the world's most important central bank will be down to just three out of seven members. There are three Fed nominations waiting for Senate confirmation, but it could take weeks or months to get to them.

All these failures are due to the janky and anachronistic institutions of the Senate.

Let's start with the filibuster. Here's what went down on the efficiency bill:

[Reid] had agreed to schedule a vote on forcing President Barack Obama to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast, a key issue in election races around the country. But Reid said he would only allow that vote if the Republicans agreed to the modest energy efficiency bill, which has languished for years despite wide and bipartisan support.

Senate Republicans, though, insisted on offering amendments to the energy efficiency bill, including measures to help the coal industry by limiting regulation of planet-warming gases and to speed up the approval U.S. natural gas exports. Reid refused to allow amendments to be considered on the floor. [Sacramento Bee]

So Republicans threatened to filibuster and the bill died. Add one more good idea to the corpse heap of GOP filibusters.

People tend to blame this on some vague idea of "politics," but there's simply no way to get the politics out of our legislature. The operation of the legislative body is practically the definition of politics. No, our problem is crappy, pointless roadblocks that get in the way of the politics.

Senate Democrats weakened the filibuster for nominations, but not for legislation. But at this point there's simply no reason for the filibuster to exist at all, other than to thwart an entire presidential agenda that a minority happens to disagree with. Ditto the "blue slip" rule and the sucking morass of procedural hurdles that eat up time and prevent executive branch nominees from being considered.

A quick up-or-down vote works for nearly every other democratic institution in the entire world. It will work for the Senate. And it's flat-out embarrassing to have our most powerful economic committee less than half-filled due to anti-democratic obstructionism.

Time is running out for this administration. If the Republicans take the Senate in the midterm elections (a distinct possibility), then that will probably be the end of confirming anyone but reactionaries until 2016 at the earliest. President Obama's inexplicably lax attention to the federal bureaucracy is possibly his single greatest weakness, and it is clearly threatening his legacy.

As Jamelle Bouie details in a sharp post today, Republicans will almost certainly sweep aside whatever precedent stands between them and stacking every open lifetime appointment with the most radically conservative twenty-somethings they can scrounge up. The blue slip rule, which enables a single senator to hold up a nomination, has been repeatedly abused by conservatives, resulting in Obama nominating the conservative Michael Boggs to a federal court. Here's Bouie:

The problem, of course, is that it empowers Republican obstruction and gives substantial leverage to GOP senators, hence the nomination of Michael Boggs. In return for nominating Judge Julie Carnes to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and giving Boggs (and two other Republican-picked attorneys) a place on the Northern District Court of Georgia, Sens. Chambliss and Isakson would end a more than two-year hold on Jill Pryor’s nomination to the 11th Circuit.

Even with Boggs’ admirable work on Georgia’s Special Council for Criminal Justice Reform, this is a terrible deal. If it goes through, Republicans get four lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary, putting a stamp on the courts at a time when Obama should have the prerogative. [Slate]

In reality, the Senate's vaunted traditions are already near death. The question is who will kill them off first. The Democrats should get it over with, and get a bit of desperately needed governing done in the process.

 
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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