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The Next Generation Of Senate Dysfunction

Republican Senator Richard Shelby has put a “hold” on 70 of President Obama’s nominees, meaning none of them can proceed without securing 60 votes to break a filibuster. I believe this is a seminal moment in the history of Congress.

Many of the changes in American politics over the past three decades have involved the two parties slowly doing away with social norms that preventing them from using every tool at their disposal. The Senate minority could filibuster every single bill the majority proposed, but you just didn’t do that, until you did. You could use a House-Senate conference to introduce completely new provisions into a bill, but you just didn’t do that, until you did. (The topic became common in the Bush administration.) The possibility was always there to use endless amendments to filibuster a reconciliation bill. But nobody thought to do that until Republicans floated the tactic this week.

The “hold” is a now similar tool to what the filibuster was forty years ago. It’s a sparingly-used weapon meant to signal an unusually intense preference. A Congressional scholar reports that putting a blanket hold on all the president’s nominees has never been done before. But there’s no rule that says you can’t. It’s just not done, until it is.

Shelby is using his blanket hold to demand pork for his state. It’s a telling sign of the decay of the process, another indication of the power parochial interests have to block rational policymaking. But what’s to keep the minority party form simply blocking all the president’s nominees, from day one? Sure, they might catch some heat. But the president would eventually catch even more heat as his undermanned administration slid into dysfunction. And politics is a zero-sum game.

That may sound like a crazy scenario. But history shows that you can’t count on social norms to prevent competing parties from trying to maximize their advantage. The only way to change this kind of behavior is to change the rules.