Political Animal


December 04, 2012 11:35 AM Beyond Partisanship on Filibuster Reform

By Ed Kilgore

In a Bloomberg column, conservative pundit (and newly established AEI wonk) Ramesh Ponnuru provides a good summary of the argument that Democrats may live to regret their recent interest in filibuster reform. He doesn’t actually think the reforms Harry Reid is promoting will make a big difference in how the Senate operates, but does believe the use of the “constitutional option” sets a precedent Republicans might exploit later on—since partisan hypocrisy on the subject is the general rule—to roll back “welfare state” provisions up to and including Obamacare. More generally, he thinks liberals, having achieved most of their “welfare state” agenda with the enactment of Obamacare, ought to understand they now benefit from any institutional impediments to significant public policy change.

It’s a seductive argument, but misses some key points about the difference between progressives and conservatives. The former temperamentally dislike gridlock, and have greater faith in democratic institutions—however flawed—to reflect public opinion in the long run. Moreover, the charge that both parties are equally hypocritical in supporting filibuster reform when they control the Senate and opposing it when they don’t reflects inadequate memory of what GOPers were trying to do when they flirted with “the nuclear option” in 2005: it was all about cutting off filibusters of judicial nominations (a subject on which Republicans are perpetually under intense pressure from their Christian Right base), not routine imposition of a 60-vote threshold for conducting Senate business. Indeed, you can make the case that of all the circumstances that might merit a filibuster, lifetime appointments to the federal bench are the most compelling.

Personally, I’m more than willing to take the risk that filibuster reform might produce some short-term “regrets” for progressives. The alternative is a U.S. Senate in which (thanks to the Senate’s geographical composition) conservatives have a permanent, long-term veto over measures they dislike, regardless of the political landscape or contemporary public opinion.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Josef K on December 04, 2012 11:47 AM:

    but does believe the use of the “constitutional option” sets a precedent Republicans might exploit later on—since partisan hypocrisy on the subject is the general rule—to roll back “welfare state” provisions up to and including Obamacare.

    And how do they do this, exactly?

    I can see a resurgent GOP Senate work to pass (or, in the GOP's case, ram through) some actual legislation. That however presupposes that (a) the House can or will pass something even vaguely similar, (b) that it makes it out of conference committee, and (c) gets signed by a sympathetic President.

    C'mon, this site is supposed to have some of the best political reporting in the US, and treating something as brain-dead as Ponnuru's missive with anything but much-deserved mockery? Seriously?

  • c u n d gulag on December 04, 2012 11:55 AM:

    I'll take my chances, too.

    Like recent Democratic President have had to spend their time in office cleaning up the sh*t their Republican predecessors left them, maybe when the Democrats control the new "Now With Less Filibuster" Senate, they can pass some progressive stuff, and future Republican Senates can spin their wheels trying to undo popular programs from the last couple of years.

  • Chris on December 04, 2012 11:56 AM:

    the use of the "constitutional option" sets a precedent Republicans might exploit later on.

    What precedent? Senate rules have been changed before with 51 votes.

  • Chris on December 04, 2012 12:01 PM:

  • Percysowner on December 04, 2012 12:04 PM:

    Considering how the Republicans have abused the filibuster, I can't imagine them not ending it the first time they have a majority in the Senate. They will NEVER allow the Democrats a chance to do unto them what they did unto the Democrats. So the Democrats might as well get something out of the next 2 years instead of constant stalemate.

  • Josef K on December 04, 2012 12:10 PM:

    From Chris at 12:01 PM:

    And how do they do this, exactly?

    How Republicans could shut the Senate down, if they wanted to

    I mean how could they "roll back" a blessed thing using just the Constitutional Option. Shutting down the Senate is one thing; that's clearly doable in any number of ways. But what Ponnuru appears to be implying is that they'll use rules changes to actually overturn existing laws and regulations.

    So, again, how does McConnell think he could manage such things?

  • stormskies on December 04, 2012 12:33 PM:

    from crooks and liars ...

    Senator Mitch McConnell once was a big proponent of a plan to outright end the filibuster back in 2005, because out of over two hundred Republican judges that were nominated, a handful were blocked by Democrats.

    Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell said yesterday that Republicans have enough votes to invoke the “nuclear option” to limit Democrats’ ability to stall by filibuster consideration of President Bush’s nominees for federal appeals courts. “I never announce my whip count.

    "But I’m telling you, there’s no doubt in my mind — and I’m a pretty good counter of votes — that we have the votes we need,” the Kentucky Republican said. “And that step will be taken sometime in the near future at the determination of the majority leader.”

    Ezra Klein writes this about McConnell's biggest whoppers about the filibuster:

    As Senate whip, McConnell was a key player in the GOP’s 2005 effort to change the filibuster rules using — you guessed it — 51 votes. As he said at the time, “This is not the first time a minority of Senators has upset a Senate tradition or practice, and the current Senate majority intends to do what the majority in the Senate has often done–use its constitutional authority under article I, section 5, to reform Senate procedure by a simple majority vote.”

    Republicans have tarnished and destroyed the use of the filibuster to block so much that it has forced Harry Reid to take action. Bill Frist and McConnell were being pushed by the James Dobson crowd who were fuming that a few sicko judges weren't confirmed. Here's an old roundup I did back in 2005 about the compromise that occurred over it. (Please excuse the weird fonts.)

  • sjw on December 04, 2012 12:59 PM:

    Do the filibuster reform in January. Go big on the changes. It could be a long while before Crazy Wing Republicans get a majority in the Senate, and even if they do, there's always the possibility a Democratic House AND a Democratic President could block them. What Reid didn't realize last year when he blocked reform is that a Senate that doesn't do anything seriously hurts Democratic electoral chances up and down the line; a Senate that gets stuff done significantly improves those chances. Senator Reid: go big!

  • jjm on December 04, 2012 1:03 PM:

    Again, as the recently retired Senate parliamentarian said on Chris Hayes' show, the filibuster is there to PROTECT DEBATE. He also said it depends upon "COMITY" and "RESTRAINT" by the minority party.

    The GOP has shown neither of these even in the most minimal way.

    The proposed rules changes actually provide for MORE DEBATE, since one could no longer filibuster the motion to bring a bill to the floor.

    I see not one single thing wrong with this idea.

  • JackD on December 04, 2012 1:37 PM:

    The caveat about what the Republicans could do if they had a majority is way out of date. They already did it with the nuclear option under Frist. The fact that the Democrats backed off under the threat so that the Republicans didn't actually have to do it doesn't detract from the fact that the Republicans were ready to do it if they needed to. That's the real precedent not what Reid is proposing.

  • FlipYrWhig on December 04, 2012 1:38 PM:

    The party that has a majority in the Senate should be able to attempt to do things with their majority, such as lawmaking and conducting investigations. In the event that Republicans gain a majority, they should be able to do that too. Enough with the bullshit. Let the people see what each party does, tries to do, and wants to try to do.

  • Tom Dibble on December 04, 2012 3:24 PM:

    Okay, if we're going to discuss this guy's "thesis", let's count Ponnuru's basic misunderstandings. I'll start:

    1. The importance of "precedent". The Republicans have shown they have no compunction about setting any precedent which might help them achieve their goals. I'd posit that this is a symptom of the echo chamber; it's easy for the right to convince itself that [whatever] is absolutely necessary because of [whatever] events which are unique and need a unique response, etc.

    2. That progressives want one set of laws and conservatives want another set of laws, and that historically we oscillate between the two. Progressives value social justice and (duh) progress over stability; Conservatives fear change and value predictable stability over potentially dangerous progress. *Movement* is a progressive's friend; we do believe that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice".

    That is not to say that Republicans are truly conservatives today; they want to "conserve" something that never has been. But, "progressives" really are for progress. Don't project your hypocrisy on us.

    At the core, the filibuster is a tool primarily of use to conservatives. It stops progress. Yes, it also stops backsliding into the racist xenophobic and social darwinist wet dreams that stand in for "conservative" thought these days, but there are better tools for that (good men and women standing up for what is right and voting the misogynist creeps out of office, to start).

  • Blue streak on December 04, 2012 8:55 PM:

    I'd like to second Ed's idea that lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary might, repeat, might be worthy of an exception to filibuster-proof majority rule.

    This means that Sen. Frist had it exactly backwards when supported filibuster for legislation but demanded an up-or-down vote for some of George Bush's unsavory judicial appointments.

  • Pete Fugiel on January 25, 2013 12:03 AM:

    My research shows that 54% of US lives in the ten largest states. Only 3% are in the ten smallest states. Resources are directed away from metro areas to the smallest states. This is federal taxation without representation. Voluntary expansion of the senate to add, by my math, thirty more seats, would take the fiscal pressure off the largest states. This is not politics, it is metrics. The American people will understand these numbers.