How Harry Reid Broke the Senate

Former Sen. Harry Reid (DNev.) diedHe was diagnosed with pancreatic Cancer on December 28, 2018. At 82, he was still a strong and influential Democratic politician. Reid was one the most prominent Democratic politicians in the four decades prior to his retirement in 2016. Most of the time he was in Congress, where he first gained a Senate seat in 1986. Reid was Senate Democrats leader from 2005 through 2016. For eight years, from 2007 to 2014., he served as Senate majority leader. Two other senators served this role longer: Senator Mike Mansfield (D).Mont.) and Sen. Robert Byrd (DW.Va.). And like Mansfield and Byrd, Reid had an outsized impact on the Senate—and not for the better.

Reid was a partisan street fighter and scrappy politician who loved to lose. With his deft parliamentary maneuverings and unapologetic rhetoric, Reid routinely angered Republicans. Reid worked often closely with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R).Ky.) in order to see that the Senate passed legislation the leaders and a bipartisan mass supported. This was over and above the objections of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. But Reid’s leadership ability also played a role in creating the current dysfunction within the Senate.

Here lies Reid’s legacy, both tragic and lasting. Reid skillfully used the Senate’s few powers as majority leader to get the job done while creating the impression of a bitter divide between Republicans and Democrats. Reid also downplayed Democrats’ policy differences while highlighting their disagreements with Republicans. He also ensured that some bills were passed. This was by setting the Senate’s agenda and overseeing key negotiations with Republicans. Then, he organized subsequent floor debates in order to make it difficult for conservative or liberal senators to change or defeat those products.

Reid was able to effectively eliminate deliberation from the Senate’s floor and ensure that legislation is still being passed, something that many of his predecessors failed to do.

Reid’s term as majority leader was a benchmark for the expectations senators have of their leaders. Before Reid, senators had understood that Reid’s main responsibility was to encourage participation by interested senators on the floor and ensure the running of the legislative trains. The primary responsibility of the majority leader is now to protect senators and prevent them from voting against their will, to craft legislative compromises and to structure the legislative process so that it approves the bills.

Reid’s transformation of major leader’s responsibilities into senators’ responsibility is particularly striking, as senators were not involved. CreateThe position was held officially up to the 1920s. Before that time, Senate leadership had been provided by senators of exceptional ability (e.g. Senators. John C. Calhoun (Henry Clay), and Daniel Webster were committee chairmen. Although the majority role played by today’s Senate leadership was established in 1980s and 1990s respectively, Reid was the first major leader to be as involved in all aspects inside the Senate.

Reid’s remarkable success in changing senators expectations of the majority leaders is made even more impressive by his leadership of a Democratic Caucus, which was plagued with growing divisions about major issues, such as guns, immigration, health care and guns. By preventing senators from having to vote on other bills, Reid prevented party-fracturing matters from threatening Democrats’ ability pass other bills. Reid’s attempts to make the Senate appear divided created the illusion that it was. However, there was a lot of bipartisan agreement among senators on many issues.

Reid shows leadership skills through his innovative use of Senate rules and practice to tighten control on the floor and ensure nothing happens without his consent.

Reid was the first to use the now common tactic of filing cloture and filling in the amendment trees on bill preemptively after the Senate had begun debating them. By filling out the amendment tree, opponents can’t offer alternative suggestions and supporters are protected from casting votes that could hurt them when they run for re-election. Filing cloture expedites Senate consideration and presents senators often with a “failure” situation, forcing them into deciding between their proposed amendments and the actual bill.

Perhaps most importantly, Reid established the precedent of disregarding the Senate rules when he was unable to use them to his benefit.

Reid and his colleagues urged their fellow Democrats to use the nuclear option in 2013 to eliminate filibuster on most Presidential nominations. McConnell followed Reid’s example and his fellow Republicans used the nuclear option, to remove the filibuster from Supreme Court nominations. Also, it allowed for a shorter time period under the rules once the Senate had invoked Cloture on a nominee before any final confirmation votes.

Reid’s replacements are unable to replicate his success. They successfully stopped deliberation from the Senate floor. They haven’t, however, managed to find bipartisan compromises on the most contentious issues, such as infrastructure, like Reid. As a result, the Senate today neither deliberates nor debates. Harry Reid is to be commended for this.