There’s a lot of dispute in contemporary Republican politics about who is and isn’t a true conservative. One would imagine, though, that a genuine ideological conservative — the type of person cautious about change — would believe that preserving the filibuster is even more important than a “productive” GOP Congress.
But it seems increasingly unlikely that Republicans will stick to this idealism. Majoritarianism becomes extraordinarily appealing when you’re in charge. And, apparently, there’s a growing movement among Republicans (with otherwise rock-ribbed right-wingers and leadership involved in some of these discussions) to further weaken the filibuster because the GOP is now frustrated they can’t get things done.
Frustrated with Democrats blocking their agenda, a cadre of upstart Republicans is pushing to revamp the Senate’s rule book to make it harder for the opposition to keep key legislation from coming to the floor.
But the move pits the maverick conservatives against the party’s “old bulls” — such as Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain — who argue the changes would erode key rights of the minority and undermine how the Senate was designed to work. Many of the upstarts have never been in the minority, but veteran Republicans are wary of taking bold action now that could haunt them if they ever lose control of the chamber.
It’s certainly worth noting that liberals have been shameless phonies on the issue. And it’s true that the press is never going to cover Democratic filibustering as if it were a threat to the republic. Filibustering is problematic (and front-page news) only when reactionaries are clogging up the works and slowing progressive policy agendas.
Liberals like Ezra Klein — whose opposition to filibusters was once part of his Twitter bio — could not stop writing about this archaic, undemocratic tool. Weirdly, not so much, anymore. E.J. Dionne announced that we faced an unprecedented calamity in Washington not that long ago: “Misuse of the filibuster is a central cause of Washington’s contorted policymaking,” he claimed. Today? Not so much. The Black Congressional Caucus blamed it on racism, naturally, and Dana Milbank claimed that Joe McCarthy would be proud. And so on.
When Harry Reid abdicated his responsibility to preserve the deliberative and independent nature of the Senate by deploying the nuclear option in November 2013 for purely partisan reasons, he scratched the threshold for almost all nominations. It was perhaps his most destructive moment — and that is saying something.
These days, Richard Shelby (a senior member of the Appropriations Committee) tells Politico that the Democrats’ nuclear option had changed the game. “You know, it’s not the law. It’s not the statute. It’s not the Constitution,” he points out. One wonders if Shelby felt the same way when he was filibustering gun-control legislation or putting blanket holds on judicial nominees.
Is the game changed forever? Probably. Republicans seem to believe that the only way to push back against aggressive liberal tactics is to employ identical ones. “I’m actually pretty bullish on changing all the rules as I know them, quite frankly,” Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said. “Nominations, everything … I’m open to anything that makes this body actually functioning.”
This is absurd.
Setting aside idealistic concerns conservative should have about governing and process, there are plenty of partisan reasons not to dismantle filibusters any further, especially now. Why are Republicans so interested in sending Obama bills he won’t sign, anyway? And if Scott and Shelby are bullish about allowing debates on nominations and “everything,” what stops their party from permitting these debates to move forward?
What will happen is that if (or when, to be more precise) Republicans lose the majority, it will be far easier for Democrats, who are far more inclined to support huge, generational reforms, to unilaterally implement permanent change — the same way they did with Obamacare, which was a truly unprecedented act of partisanship. If it weren’t for the filibuster, in fact, we’d probably already have a fabricated energy marketplace via cap and trade (a scheme that was intended to make energy more expensive) rather than incredibly affordable fossil fuels. And that’s just for starters.
Or, if both parties agree to lower the threshold for cloture on a motion to proceed on appropriations from 60 to 51, as Politico reports, the Senate would then still require 60 votes to invoke cloture on the back end and advance legislation to final passage. We would still have something that at least in theory protects the rights of the minority party. So then what’s the point? A step in the wrong direction for what? More theater?
Now, there’s a persuasive case to be made for employing the tactics of Democrats to undo specific agenda items in the same way they came into existence. Using reconciliation to repeal Obamacare seems reasonable enough. The problem is that the same people who persistently protest the abuse of power in D.C. now want to imbue politicians with the power to do the things they lamented not so long ago. In some way, this is the allure of Trump: some people support his supposed readiness to brandish power in the same way Obama has (and sometimes how we imagine Obama has).
But, of course, Republicans can’t be trusted with power, either. If the American people are truly anxious about obstructionism in D.C., they would elect the kind of statesmen favored by the finger-wagging “moderate.” It’s more likely that Washington is a realistic reflection of genuine divisions within our society: the kind of divisions that unilateral legislative efforts would only exacerbate. I have no idea what the political expedient position would be, but the nation would benefit if Republicans made the process an issue rather than employing the same, hypocritical act the Democrats gave us.