WASHINGTON — “Congress is broken,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday before holding a party-line vote that disposed of rules that have guided and protected the chamber since 1789.
If Congress wasn’t broken before, it certainly is now. What Reid (Nev.) and his fellow Democrats effectively did was take the chamber of Congress that still functioned at a modest level and turn it into a clone of the other chamber, which functions not at all. They turned the Senate into the House.
Democrats were fully justified in stripping Republicans of their right to filibuster President Obama’s nominees — yet they will come to deeply regret what they have done. Certainly, Republicans have abused the dilatory tactics that Senate minorities have, for centuries, used with greater responsibility; they seem intent on bringing government to a halt. And the Senate in 2013 is hardly a healthy institution.
Yet it has achieved far more than the House — passing bipartisan immigration legislation and a farm bill and working out deals to avoid default and to end the federal government shutdown — largely because, until Thursday, Senate rules required the majority party to win votes from the minority.
Here’s what then-Sen. Joe Biden said in 2005 when a Republican Senate majority threatened to use a similar “nuclear option” to allow a simple majority to carry the day: “The nuclear option abandons America’s sense of fair play … tilting the playing field on the side of those who control and own the field. I say to my friends on the Republican side: You may own the field right now, but you won’t own it forever. I pray God when the Democrats take back control, we don’t make the kind of naked power grab you are doing.”
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, one of just three Democrats who opposed his colleagues’ naked power grab, read those words on the Senate floor Thursday after Reid invoked the nuclear option. The rumpled Levin is not known for his oratory. But he is retiring next year and free to speak his mind. His words were potent.
“We need to change the rules, but to change it in the way we changed it today means there are no rules except as the majority wants them,” Levin said. “This precedent is going to be used, I fear, to change the rules on consideration of legislation, and down the road — we don’t know how far down the road; we never know that in a democracy — but, down the road, the hard-won protections and benefits for our people’s health and welfare will be lost.”
The word “historic” is often tossed around in Washington, but this change ends a tradition dating to the earliest days of the republic. For the nation’s first 118 years, there were no limits on debate in the Senate. After 1917, cutting off debate, or reaching “cloture,” required a two-thirds majority. In 1975, that threshold was reduced to 60 of 100 votes.
Even that lower minimum required lawmakers to cooperate with each other. “Cloture has fostered more bipartisanship in the Senate,” Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian, told me Thursday after Reid detonated his nuclear device. “The majority leader of the Senate is expected to try to work out some kind of a bipartisan deal to get enough votes to get cloture. Because the House is run by majority rule, it is seen as a sign of weakness if the majority leadership of the House has to get votes from the minority side.”
Now the Senate will be just as dysfunctional. Reid was right that Republican obstruction has been intolerable; half of the 168 filibusters of executive and judicial nominations in the nation’s history, he noted, have come during the Obama presidency.
But Reid’s remedy — calling a simple-majority vote to undo more than two centuries of custom — has created a situation in which the minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is expected to use the minority’s remaining powers to gum up the works, and to get revenge when Republicans regain the majority.
Levin told his fellow Democrats, “If a Senate majority demonstrates it can make such a change once, there are no rules which binds a majority, and all future majorities will feel free to exercise the same power, not just on judges and executive appointments but on legislation.”
If it was possible to make things even worse in Washington, Harry Reid just did it.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays. Email him at email@example.com.