Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Democrats' Unity Reform Commission

The members of the Democratic National Convention Rules Committee convened on Saturday, July 23 to consider the report the committee will present to the convention on its opening day in Philadelphia. After a lengthy primary season that highlighted procedural issues surrounding superdelegates, caucuses and the openness of participation in the Democratic nomination process, it was expected that those matters would dominate the proceedings.

Not surprisingly, they did.

Following a series of uncontentious votes -- on convention officers and convention procedure -- and a short recess, the committee began to consider amendments to the charter of the party and the rules of the nomination process. This began with a series of amendments with respect to the influence of superdelegates on the process. But in each instance, the same basic pattern emerged: any change to the current superdelegate system was voted down by a ratio of around 3:2. That happened first on an amendment to abolish superdelegates. It happened again on measures to reduce their influence (or number) on the nominating process.

It was at that point that committee members from both the Clinton and Sanders teams rose to call for a recess. What followed was an over three hour break that produced a unity amendment chartering a post-convention commission to examine not only the superdelegate process that had triggered a slew of amendment proposals, but the other perceived shortcomings of the process (chiefly, caucuses and participation).

The Unity Reform Commission, successor to the Democratic Change Commission of eight years ago, will have a specific mandate if the convention votes in favor of the Rules Committee report on the first day of the convention on Monday. What passed the Rules Committee on Saturday was this:

  1. No more than 60 days after the election of the next chair of the Democratic National Committee early next year, the chair will establish the Unity Reform Commission (URC).
  2. Its membership will include Clinton surrogate, Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, as commission chairwoman and Sanders proxy, Larry Cohen, as vice chair. Clinton will fill nine (9) additional slots and Sanders, seven (7). The DNC chair (see #1) will select three (3) additional members. 
  3. Consistent with the timeline of the Democratic Change Commission, the 21 member Unity Reform Commission will meet during 2017 with the goal of producing a set of rules recommendations to the Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee by January 1, 2018.
  4. The normal procedure is for the Rules and Bylaws Committee to consider those commission recommendations before sending them -- potentially in an amended form -- to the full Democratic National Committee for a final vote. That procedure remains intact. However, the URC retains the ability to place their recommendations before the full DNC if the Rules and Bylaws Committee "fails to substantially adopt" any of them. [NOTE: How the commission arrives at a conclusion that the RBC has not met that requirement greatly depends on who the members of the commission are.]
  5. Substantively, the unity amendment calls for another reconsideration of the caucus process. This was a Clinton campaign complaint after 2008 and is again in 2016. The question confronting the URC will be whether they come to a different conclusion than the Democratic Change Commission. The 2009 commission called for the development of a set of "best practices" for caucuses, but ultimately left the primary versus caucus matter up to the states (in order to best tailor a process at the state level). 
  6. The amendment is less forceful on the parameters of discussion on participation in the nomination process. The commission's charter only calls for the development of recommendations that "encourage" increased involvement in the process. In the end, the directive on what essentially boils down to an open versus closed primary discussion is more passive. The Sanders proxies on the commission will likely push for something promoting more open primaries, but historically the DNC (and the RNC for that matter) have remained mostly hands-off on this matter, deferring to the states. [NOTE: This question is certainly more difficult to deal with considering both major national parties are being pulled in opposite directions on the matter. Sanders supporters are advocating for more open primaries, while the liberty faction within the Republican Party are aiming for a more closed process. That potentially mixed message will be more likely produce mixed results if and when either party moves more forcefully on any recommendations on this front.] 
  7. While the open primaries mandate was passive, the part of the amendment devoted to superdelegates had more teeth to it. In any event, there was more clarity as to the specifics of the superdelegates mandate of the commission. While the group will broadly consider the superdelegates' role in the process, it will specifically recommend that elected officials -- Democratic members of Congress, governors and distinguished party leaders (presidents, vice presidents, etc.) -- remain as unpledged delegates. However, the second part of the recommendation shifts the remaining superdelegates (approximately two-thirds of them) out of the unpledged category and into a pledged territory (to be proportionally pledged/bound based on the results of primaries and caucuses). [NOTE A: Again, these are recommendations. The URC can go over the heads of the Rules and Bylaws Committee if it does not adopt any part of the commission's recommendations, but it cannot necessarily force the full DNC to adopt these rules. If the commission is near unanimous in its recommendations, that may make any inaction on the part of the RBC or DNC more difficult. And ultimately, that issue circles back around to the membership of the committee. If they are divided from the start, they will likely be somewhat divided at the end, issuing recommendations that are less clear and less likely to be ratified by the DNC.] [NOTE B: The specificity of this superdelegate section of the unity amendment presented to the Rules Committee moves in the direction of what the Sanders campaign wants: curbing the influence of the unpledged delegates. But while it hypothetically reduces their number, it does not address the core problem Sanders and his supporters had with superdelegates. The root complaint was that a significant number of superdelegates endorsed Clinton in 2015 before any primary and caucus votes had been cast. There are potentially fewer superdelegates after this, but the pre-primary endorsement problem is and will still be an issue. The commission is not confined to just this action on superdelegates though. It has to make that recommendation, but can go beyond that on the matter.]
  8. There is an additional section to the amendment dealing with expanding the party nationally that echoes not only what Sanders has said over the last year, but also is reminiscent of the Dean DNC's 50 state strategy. 
  9. The main perceived problems of 2016 are addressed in the amendment, but the scope of the commission's actions can expand beyond those areas at the discretion of the chair and vice chair of the commission. The group can look at other parts of the rules behind the presidential nomination process. 
One thing that is an interesting side note to all of this is something hinted at above. This Unity Reform Commission will be active simultaneous to the newly created study panel that came out of the Republican National Convention Rules Committee in Cleveland. Each group will most certainly have an eye on the actions of the other and that will undoubtedly affect the recommendations that come out of either. A similar separated, bipartisan consideration of rules occurred after 2008. That resulted in the Democratic Change Commission and (Republican) Temporary Delegate Selection Committee finding common ground on problems like the frontloading of primaries and caucuses and the January start to primary season. That sort of unofficial semi-coordination could repeat itself in 2017, but that outcome is dependent on the two groups seeing common ground. That was clear with the calendar after 2008, but may not be with open versus closed primaries and other issues following 2016. 

In any event, it will make for an eventful 2017 on the rules front.

Recent Posts:
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