Opinions, Context & Ideas from the TPM Editors TPM Editor's Blog

'Willful Perversion'

You asked what people thought of the filibuster changes today. I think I'm going to be ill.

Senate rules have been around for a long time. They work. They work, that is, if they are treated with respect, and if the Senate's role in the government is likewise treated with respect by its members. If they are, instead, treated with contempt -- as mere tools to enable timely response to organized constituencies -- work in the Senate will grind to a halt, encumbering the rest of the government.

I can understand, though I do not share, intense disagreement with every Obama administration initiative and disapproval of every Presidential nominee to every judgeship or executive branch office. Willful perversion of the Senate's rules in an effort to ensure that the Senate passes no legislation and approves no nominees (at least in a timely way) is so far beyond my experience with the body that I struggle to believe news accounts from the place.

And willful perversion of the Senate's rules is what the Senate Republicans committed themselves to. It is idle to complain about Sen. McConnell as if he were holding up nominees and legislation by himself. Nearly every Republican Senator -- including people like Cochran, Grassley, Hatch, McCain and Alexander who have been Senators for many years -- has supported McConnell without cavil throughout this entire sordid business. If McConnell acted in bad faith by going back on a promise made last year not to obstruct routine nominations, so did they.

I hate the idea of changing the filibuster in the way that was done today. I'd rather alter it by consensus, to reduce the opportunity for future abuse by making motions to proceed to legislation and nominations non-debatable while leaving open the option of extended debate on substance. I'd also be open to addressing a legitimate minority complaint about a Majority Leader using his priority right of recognition to preclude amendments on legislation.

The problem is that Senate Republicans as a group have committed themselves to abuse. They have made it their policy. As Norm Ornstein has suggested, they leave Senate Democrats with the choice of changing the Senate's rules or submitting to paralysis on nominations to the executive and judiciary as well as legislation. That's no choice at all, and a commitment to abuse the rules is not one with which Senate Democrats could compromise.

I fear the effect of today's events in the Senate will be to alter the character of the institution, or to be more precise to make it impossible to restore at some point in a future a functioning Senate similar to the one I knew when I worked there. Not for the first time, it has been found necessary for Congress to sacrifice something of the future just to get through a present crisis; not for the first time, the crisis has been the product of deliberate, feckless choice.

Today has been one of the most dispiriting days in a dispiriting time.