The Reid Rule

03/28/2015 02:47 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2015

It's been freezing in Washington for the past few months, but it wasn't the nuclear winter some predicted when Sen. Harry Reid ushered in the most important changes to Senate procedure in a generation.

Sen. Reid's announced retirement in 2016 has already led to many retrospectives about the legacy he will leave when he returns to Nevada. A major chapter will be his work to return the Senate to its tradition of providing up-or-down votes on most presidential nominees. It will be titled the "Reid Rule."

In the fall of 2013, under Sen. Reid's leadership, a majority of senators -- old bulls like Iowa's former Sen. Tom Harkin, new voices like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and independents like Sen. Angus King of Maine -- voted to set a new precedent: No longer could 41-out-of-100 senators wield veto power over every presidential nomination.

The Senate acted in the wake of unprecedented obstruction: Republicans at the time were blocking up-or-down votes on appellate judges, high-level administration officials and even a member of Congress nominated to lead an agency.

Those leading the blockade were transparent about their motives: They had no problems with the credentials of many of these nominees; they just wanted to leave some vacancies unfilled. And so they invoked the 60-vote filibuster rule over-and-over again, which essentially allowed a minority of 41 senators to grind everything to a halt.

In the aftermath of Sen. Reid's decision to end filibusters on most nominations, the Senate confirmed more than 385 nominees to courts and executive agencies, rendering hollow the hyperbolic claims that eliminating the filibuster for most nominations would destroy civilization as we know it.

If Sen. Reid had not acted, entire government offices would have ceased to function and the judicial branch would have had even more vacancies than it does today, delaying justice for thousands of Americans.

Eliminating the 60-vote rule for most nominees cut-off the ability of a small faction of senators to shut down agencies and nullify laws they oppose by depriving government of a functioning staff.

Of course, a senator can still vote against a nominee on the merits -- but no longer can a senator require a 60-vote supermajority before the rest of the Senate exercises its right to provide advice and consent on a nomination.

Still, senators who prefer gridlock have plenty of tools at their disposal. In the aftermath of the Reid Rule, they quickly invented a new tool of obstruction: the slow walk. Before the Republicans took back the Senate earlier this year, they spent much of 2014 demanding superfluous, time-wasting cloture votes and dragging out the clock, spending days on a single nominee even if the nominee enjoyed unanimous support.

Now, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is using his control of the Senate floor to block a confirmation vote for Attorney General-nominee Loretta Lynch. No longer able to cite a lack of 60 votes as an excuse, Sen. McConnell claims that the Senate is too busy to provide its advice and consent on a potential member of the President's cabinet. Ms. Lynch has waited longer than the last seven attorneys general - combined.

These sorts of partisan games are profoundly harmful to a functioning democracy. Nominees who put themselves forward for public service -- and the Americans they will serve -- should not pay the price of indefinite limbo because a few squabbling politicians are upset with the consequences of an election or unrelated legislation. They deserve the courtesy of at least receiving a yes or no from the United States Senate.

Senator Reid's legacy will include his efforts to restore the Senate's constitutional role as the provider of advice and consent on nominees. But it still takes senators who are willing to fulfill their obligation to do their job - and voters to hold accountable those who do otherwise.

[This piece is adapted from an earlier blog by the author posted on The Hill on the first-year anniversary of the Senate's rule change.]