TIME TO REFORM THE FILIBUSTER…. One of the striking aspects of the political process on the Hill is how quickly everyone has adapted to a once-rare tactic becoming routine. Senate filibusters used to be exceedingly rare — a dramatic challenge only to be used under extraordinary circumstances. Only recently has the political world accepted, without so much as a discussion, the notion that literally every key measure must enjoy a 60-vote majority if it hopes to become law.
Take the fight over the economic stimulus bill. Early on, Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders said Republicans would not filibuster a rescue package in the midst of a global economic crisis. Soon after, the GOP changed its mind — and no one seemed to think anything of it. There were no demands for an “up-or-down vote.” There was no media coverage about Republican “obstructionism.” It was simply assumed, without controversy, that Republicans would not only oppose the legislation, but also launch an effort to block the Senate from even voting on the bill in the first place.
Indeed, what should be seen as a radical break with political and legislative norms barely raises an eyebrow anymore. An important bill will come to the floor, will have the support of 58 senators out of 100, and will fail. Every important bill is shaped with a mandatory super-majority in mind. No one finds that odd in the slightest. If 41 senators don’t like a bill, it won’t get a vote. It’s just accepted, fait accompli.
Perhaps now would be a good time to realize that the status quo is kind of ridiculous. Ezra Klein noted this week, “Far from being a sacrosanct feature of American politics, the filibuster is, every few generations, understood to be so detrimental to governance that it is radically weakened.” Maybe this generation should be prepared to take the next step.
Calls for reform are becoming more common. Kevin Drum noted yesterday that there’s a problem when “a party can win the presidency, the House, and the Senate by landslide majorities but still can’t pass big parts of its program because it needs 60 votes in the Senate.” The filibuster, he reminded us, was “never intended to become a routine requirement that all legislation needs 60% of the vote in the Senate to pass.”
Matt Yglesias, highlighting this chart, explains the history of the tactic, and notes how this is something of an accident. He concluded, “None of this has ever been a good idea. But when it was genuinely reserved as an extraordinary measure, it was a bad idea whose badness could be overlooked. But as it’s become a routine matter, it’s become a bigger and bigger problem. It needs to be reformed.”
Of course it does. Look at that chart again — does anyone think last year was a fluke? Or is it more likely the Senate minority will meet or exceed the same number of filibusters in this Congress? And the next?
There are competing ideas. Maybe the number can be lowered from 60. Perhaps there can be some kind of limit on the number of filibusters (kind of like NFL coaches having a limit on how many times they can challenge a referee’s call on the field). Maybe senators can be forced to actually filibuster bills, the way they used to before it became easy. Of course, the chamber can also scrap the filibuster altogether.
I don’t doubt senators from both parties are reluctant to even consider reform. They should do it anyway.