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Supermajorities don't (and shouldn't) define the Senate

Associated Press

We don't yet know exactly why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) gave up on ambitious reforms of filibuster rules. After months of voicing support for sweeping changes, it's possible Reid just didn't have the votes from his own caucus to pursue bold reforms through the "constitutional option."

Whatever the reasoning, however, it's important that folks understand that when Reid says protecting the filibuster is necessary to keep the Senate from being like the House, he's wrong.

"I'm not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold," Reid (D-Nev.) told me this morning, referring to the number of votes needed to halt a filibuster. "With the history of the Senate, we have to understand the Senate isn't and shouldn't be like the House."

I get the argument -- the rambunctious House operates by majority rule, while the staid and serious Senate seeks consensus by requiring supermajorities for everything. Without the filibuster, the Senate is little more than a smaller version of House.

Except, this just isn't true, and Reid's explanation rings hollow. If his principal concern is with "the history of the Senate," he should be more inclined to pursue real filibuster reform, not less.

First, let's note the basics. Historically, the Senate differed from the House, not because of mandatory supermajorities that didn't exist up until very recently, but because members serve six-year terms (instead of two) and represent entire states (instead of districts). The whole point was to create a deliberate institution -- longer terms were intended to give members longer and less reflexive perspectives, and representing states helped guarantee more diverse constituencies.

The Senate didn't need filibusters to be distinct from the House; the differences were baked into the cake.

But we can dig deeper.

Reid says he's concerned about "the history of the Senate," but the Senate functioned quite well for 200 years while remaining a majority-rule institution. There were, to be sure, procedural hoops to jump through, but if a bill reached the floor, and a majority of the Senate's members supported it, the bill passed. That's no longer true, and today's modest reforms won't even try to fix that problem.

This is how the Senate was intended and designed to work -- supermajorities for treaties, impeachment, expulsions, constitutional amendments, and veto overrides, but regular ol' majorities for legislation and nominations.

The Founding Fathers considered making the Senate a supermajority chamber, but they decided against it. As we noted on the show last month: "They rejected that big time."

"In a Federalist 22, Alexander Hamilton wrote that a super majority Congress would in practice serve to, quote, 'embarrass the administration, destroy the energy of government, and substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junta to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.'"

Reid understands this. He knows this. He appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show on October 27, 2010, and viewers saw this exchange:

MADDOW: Why is it that everything takes 60 votes now? I mean, it used to be 60 votes was a headline. If somebody forced 60 votes, that meant they were filibustering and that meant that they were taking an unusually strong stand against something. Now it's 60 votes even for routine--

REID: Rachel, this has to change. It's wrong what they're doing, because it's never happened before.... The Republicans, just this time have abused the system, and it's going to have to change. We'll have to look at ways to change that, because there should not be 60 votes in the Senate.

He's not "ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold," because he's mindful of "the history of the Senate"? I know Reid knows better.