Good Riddance to the Filibuster

November 23, 2013 Topic: Congress Region: United States Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

Good Riddance to the Filibuster

It might moderate the Senate and make it more powerful.

The elimination of the filibuster by a 52-48 vote is the political equivalent of the starting pistol for the 2014 midterm elections. Any lingering hopes that both parties would reach a compromise on the debt or other legislation pretty much went up in smoke. Still, there is an upside, at least politically. Both sides can potentially benefit. Each political party can whip up its base with the filibuster issue.

For Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who didn't wage much of a fight to stave off the demise of the filibuster, it provides a great opportunity to warn the Republican base that 2014 will be a decisive election. It will determine whether President Obama can govern as an uncrowned monarch—ramming through administrative decisions that Congress is unwilling to approve. Getting the Democrats to take the hit for ending the filibuster, at least for judicial nominations, also is a nice bonus for McConnell—if he becomes majority leader, then he gets to reap the fruits of Sen. Harry Reid's decision to go nuclear. There is no reason to suppose that McConnell would reinstitute the filibuster should he become majority leader in 2014. Quite the contrary. As Ezra Klein observes, Republicans may well profit from Reid's manuever:

The electoral map, the demographics of midterm elections, and the political problems bedeviling Democrats make it very likely that Mitch McConnell will be majority leader come 2015, and then he will be able to take advantage of a weakened filibuster. And, finally, if and when Republicans recapture the White House and decide to do away with the filibuster altogether, Democrats won't have much of an argument when they try to stop them.

But how great will the fallout be? Does a nuclear winter loom for the Democrats? Until 2014, they will have a relatively free hand in appointing judges and officials to Obama administration posts. The Democratic base will see this as an instance of Obama and Reid finally standing up to the obstructionist Republicans.

In truth the end of the filibuster may not be as big a deal as it's being painted by both sides.

For one thing, it will make Senate votes more, not less, important since the threshold will now be a bare majority rather than sixty votes. Blue Dog Democrats and moderate Republicans will come under more scrutiny, which means that extreme candidates nominated by presidents would put them in something of a pickle. It's also the case that the fact that the Senate can vote up or down on candidates means that the consequences of these votes will be more directly apparent to voters. Another potential reason for circumspection.

The mourning for the filibuster is misplaced. Both political parties have largely dodged governing responsiblities in holding up candidates for the judiciary. The Wall Street Journal notes that Democrats demanded sixty votes for Miguel Estrada, Priscilla Owens, and a host of other nominees. Well, yes. But that era has had to come to an end. The only other choice is interminable trench warfare.

What's more, the notion that the filibuster could be restored to the genteel traditions of the past is improbable. Once unsheathed, the filibuster has proven a weapon that is impossible for politicians in either party to jettison. Instead, they have used it with increasing abandon. No longer. The filibuster will now figure as a campaign weapon for the GOP in its battle to dislodge Democratic control of the Senate. Now that Reid has raised political tempers even futher with his audacious move, Lenin's old dictum—Who, whom?—is starting to look increasingly applicable to America. Buckle up for a fast and furious 2014 campaign, which will serve as a referendum on Obama's last two years in office.