It's not difficult to pinpoint who Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) sounds like when he's chastising the rest of the Senate. On Tuesday, after their failure to move a budget forward, he told them, "I'm disappointed." Last month, when Republicans attempted to filibuster Chuck Hagel's nomination for secretary of defense, he remarked, "what a shame." Reid has taken on the role of a parent scolding his children. It's perfectly understandable given the pettiness on display in the modern Senate, but like many parents with wayward kids, Reid is hardly blameless in this situation. Early this year he had the chance to tweak the rules of the Senate, one of the democratic world's least democratic legislative bodies, in order to help run more consistently on the principle of majority rule. He backed down at the last minute, and now we are all paying for this failure of nerve.
The Senate, under its operating rules, has always given individual senators extraordinary power to block or delay legislation. On Tuesday, Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, used that power to keep his colleagues from moving forward on a debate over the upcoming year's budget. We shouldn't kid ourselves when it comes to Moran's motives: He's upset about a handful of airports that are closing in his state due to sequestration, and his "where's mine?" attitude typifies what so many people dislike about politicians. It also is incorrect to call Moran's move a filibuster, as many media sources already have done. A true filibuster, such as the one Senator Rand Paul (R-Wisc.) conducted two weeks ago, requires senators to block a bill by talking without pause, refusing to give up the floor until they've made their case. Moran just blocked the budget bill and went about his day, holding up the business of a body that moves slowly enough as it is.
To a certain extent, it was always going to be this way with the Senate. The organ was never meant to be explicitly democratic, as the Constitution designed it as a counterbalance to the popularly elected House of Representatives. But as the New York Times noted in a recent report, as the United States has urbanized and industrialized, the disparity between large and small states has grown. Six senators — two each from California, New York, and Texas — represent nearly 75 million Americans, as do 62 senators from the nation's 31 least populous states. Add to that a 60-vote supermajority that's required to move forward with legislation, and we have a system that’s ripe for abuse.
But if anyone is responsible for the Senate's current fiasco, it's not Moran, who is just exploiting the rules he was given. It's Reid, who allowed the rules to stand in the first place. In January, he and his Democratic colleagues considered a couple of reforms to the Senate rules. One would have required senators to personally take the floor for a filibuster, rather than block bills they don't like from the sidelines. The other would have flipped the 60-vote supermajority requirement on its head: Instead of placing the burden of overcoming a filibuster on the majority party, the rules would have placed the burden of sustaining one on the minority. At the last minute, Reid backed off and brokered a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that made some cosmetic changes but kept the basic rules intact.
That the Senate is an impediment to progress shouldn't shock anyone who's familiar with basic American history. But to see the majority leader give lip service to reform, fail to seize the moment, and then sulk when nothing gets done isn't an indictment of the Senate per se. It's just a sign that the body needs either a better leader, or better rules — or both.