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November 21, 2013 5:03 PM False Idols of the Senate

By Ed Kilgore

As predicted, prophecies of “buyer’s remorse” over Senate Democrats’ invocation of the “nuclear option” are flying around promiscuously, as though it did not occur to Harry Reid and company that the filibuster won’t be available to future Democratic minorities (it wouldn’t have been in any event). After that meme wears itself out, we’ll start hearing the Old Wise Heads of Washington lament the passing of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, where Ds and Rs used to get drunk and play golf together, etc., etc.

We actually got an early installment of this anachronistic tear-jerker from the not-so-old Chris Cillizza of WaPo’s The Fix. After some
preliminary hand-wringing over how both parties made this sad moment arrive, Cillizza darkly concludes:

This is a Pandora’s Box moment for the Senate, a vote that will be forever referred to when future majorities adjust the rules on a particular subject to allow the majority to rule. The minority in the Senate always had far more power than the minority in the House due to the 60-vote cloture rule. No more.
And, aside from the practical implications of the rule change, which seem easy to predict but will continue to play out over the next handful of Congresses, there is the symbolic poisoning-of-the-well effect it produces. While the argument could be made that the relationship between the two parties can’t possibly get any worse, there is now even more — if possible — ill will between the two sides. Moments after the vote, McConnell and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander promised retribution for this move at the ballot box next November. Even Republicans like Alexander, McCain, Bob Corker and Susan Collins, who had shown a willingness to do some work with Democrats, will be scalded by this vote. In short: If you thought the last few years were bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Yeah, read it and weep.

As a former Senate employee, I may have less patience than most towards that chamber’s hoary self-congratulatory lore. But the argument that the proper functioning of the Senate depends on the power to obstruct has it all backwards. Compromise is not a virtue in itself; it can produce bad as well as good legislation, and has the potential of generating confused and self-contradictory and even corrupt legislation. There is nothing in the Senate rules that keeps Lamar Alexander or Susan Collins from influencing the majority or forming coalitions with moderate Democrats, and absolutely nothing in the Constitution that keeps House and Senate members from cooperating with each other, within or across party lines. The filibuster was never the one thing that kept the Senate from being just like the House. Senate rules make amending legislation much easier; Senators have six-year terms and run statewide; Senators have built-in media platforms that most House members could only dream of. And as far as minority rights are concerned, the Senate by its very nature massively over-represents minorities—at the moment Republican minorities—because seats are not based on population.

The Senate of yore was long gone far before Republicans began massively abusing the filibuster, and long, long before anyone discussed the “nuclear option.” In many respects, it’s a good thing if Senators are no longer puffed-up governments-of-one who use their power to obstruct to shake down their colleagues and use government to create monuments to their own selves. So dry your tears, ye nostalgic mourners for the days when the Titans of the Senate walked tall. In many respects, you are worshiping false idols of a past well-buried.

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.

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