Filibuster Reform: The Stakes for 2014

The Senate Democrats' long-deferred success in reforming the filibuster rule for executive branch and judicial appointments will have reverberations that are only gradually being appreciated. Not only will 76 long-blocked appointments -- a record -- now go forward in short order. Obama, if he chooses, will be able to appoint more robust progressives.

In the past, especially on court appointments, prospective Obama nominees were pre-cleared with Republicans to make confirmation more likely. The result of this White House strategy was not only to slow the process of nominations but to place a premium in coming up with centrists rather than liberals.

The liberals who did get nominated typically faced a Republican buzz-saw. One was Goodwin Liu, now a justice of the California Supreme Court. Obama nominated him to the 9th Circuit in February 2010. The nomination was blocked until May 2011, when Goodwin withdrew in order to get on with his life.

And the list of blocked appointees includes not just federal judges but appointees to other key jobs requiring Senate confirmation. Some stellar people who were blocked by filibusters might now be re-nominated.

For instance, the Federal Reserve will soon have four or five vacancies. Janet Yellen, the new chair and the rare liberal to head the central bank, could be very lonely unless she gets some like-minded colleagues.

Fear of a Republican filibuster might have inclined the White House to send up centrist Fed nominees, who would put the new chairwoman in a minority. Now, if he so chooses, Obama can appoint other liberals.

One is MIT economist Peter Diamond, a Nobel Laureate who was blocked for a seat on the Fed in 2011 because Republican senator Richard Shelby of Alabama thought he cared too much about unemployment and not enough about inflation (just like Yellen.) How about naming Diamond to one of the new open seats?

The limitation of the filibuster threat will also make it easier to recruit good people to executive and judicial appointments (quite apart from ideology) because prospective nominees will no longer have to put their lives on hold for a year or move while Republicans block.

One of the best pieces of news in the filibuster story was the report that President Obama personally got into the act, working the phones to help enlist the last few Democratic votes for reform. This may bode well for more hands-on leadership by a president whose trademark has been reticence.

Especially courageous were the senators who voted to change the rule despite being up for re-election next year in swing states. Mark Prior, who faces a difficult election next year in Arkansas voted no. But Mary Landrieu (LA), Kay Hagan (NC), and Mark Begich (AK) all voted yes, as did freshman Jeff Merkley of Oregon who won in 2008 only by three points, but who led the reform effort.

This nervy move by Democrats raises the stakes for 2014. If Republicans retake the Senate, they will be in a mood for payback and then some. Though Democrats and their independent allies hold 55 Senate seats, several veteran Democrats in red or purple states are retiring, and several freshmen who won narrowly will be defending seats in swing states.

As many as six seats now held by Democrats are considered vulnerable, enough to tip control to Republicans (Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia) if the GOP runs the table. On the other hand, Tea-Party Republicans are planning primary fights against more traditional GOP incumbents, leaving Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, among others, vulnerable. We can expect the 2014 mid-terms to be a cliff-hanger.

Weighing in the Republicans' favor are continuing problems with the Affordable Care Act. Helping the Democrats are Republicans' divisions over immigration reform. A very slowly improving economy could cut either way. The appointment of the new Fed chair Janet Yellen, a strong proponent of monetary stimulus to boost the recovery, should help the Democrats.

The hardest question to predict is turnout and the impact of voter suppression tactics newly permitted by a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that overturned key protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Other things being equal, demographic trends are moving in the Democrats' direction, with an electorate that is more of a rainbow and more liberal on social issues. But with new barriers to the right to vote, turnout (which is always lower in mid-term elections) may be suppressed even further.

One hopes that new voter suppression efforts will stimulate new voter registration drives, with an energy that recalls the great civil rights movements of the 1960s. What a shame that we have to fight these battles all over again half a century later, but a new movement could be a silver lining.

Filibuster reform has restored a measure of democracy to the Senate. To make that reform durable and meaningful, it's necessary to restore democracy to the process of exercising the even more fundamental right to vote.

Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos.

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