Changing Senate rules for policy gain is no big deal

Written on February 15, 2015

Over the last few days, House conservatives have started asking Senate Republicans to change the Senate rules to weaken the filibuster so the Senate could more easily pass the Department of Homeland Security funding bill with immigration restrictions attached. Even though that would allow the bill to advance through the Senate, President Obama would almost certainly veto it. I imagine Congressional Republicans are okay with that because it makes it a much more prominent issue that they feel they can use against Democrats.

In any case, Senate Republicans, for the most part, are hostile to the idea. Some are talking about tradition and some don’t think it’s worthwhile to change the rules for a relatively small bill. It’s the second idea that is the stronger case against changing the Senate rules in this case, but changing the rules to achieve policy goals has been done dozens of times over the course of American history. So if the Senate changed their rules to advance this bill, it would not be an unheard of development. Exciting, yes, unheard of, no. That said, Senate Republicans should (it and seems like they are) strategically weigh whether or not the policy payoff is worth what they view is a big change in the rules.

I don’t really think it is a good tradeoff. The Republicans aren’t trying to put an arch-conservative on the Court, they aren’t trying to eliminate Obamacare, and they really aren’t working with any large policy goal. They just want to be able to hit the President with something. At the heart of it, this a spending bill with a rider to defund the President’s executive action — a proposal which may not even do anything.

So while changing the rules for policy goals is a historically well documented process, curbing the filibuster over such a short term goal does not seem like a worthwhile trade to me.