Republicans Probably Won’t Kill the Filibuster

Paul Waldman makes a claim that I see all the time:

Let’s be realistic here. Unless there’s some kind of major upheaval within the Republican party that moves it back to the center, when the day comes that there’s a Republican president and a Republican senate, the filibuster will be gone. It won’t take a Democratic minority using it with the profligacy Republicans have, either. All it will take is one filibuster on something Republicans care about. Today’s Republicans don’t care about the institution’s traditions, or about what kind of precedent they might set. They care about getting what they want. If you think they won’t do it, you haven’t been paying much attention to American politics over the last five years.

Of course, there’s no way to prove this one way or another, certainly not yet. But while I think Republicans have less restraint than Democrats do in violating norms, I think this claim is overstated.

After all, we do have some experience with this: Republicans really didn’t get rid of the filibuster during the George W. Bush presidency. Are current Republican Senators really all that different than Frist-era Republican Senators? Maybe. Maybe not.

In fact, Republicans during the Bush years wound up arguing that judicial filibusters were illegitimate (although enough were willing to cut a deal that nothing was done). They probably didn’t care about executive branch nominations because Democrats basically didn’t use the filibuster against those, so it wasn’t a big deal. Legislation, though, mattered — and Republicans from 2003 through 2006 did nothing to end filibusters on bills, even though Democrats continued the Bob Dole practice of filibustering all major bills.

Would things be different for a Republican Senate in 2017 or 2021? Maybe. On the other hand, the longer they remain in the Senate minority, the more Republican Senators will use strong language in support of rules which allow obstruction. That won’t entirely constrain them in the future, as it hasn’t completely constrained Democrats who were in those Bush-era Senate minorities, but it will tend to constrain them. It’s no surprise that many of those Democrats least enthusiastic about eliminating the filibuster are those who made strong pro-filibuster statements during the years of Republican majorities in the 1990s and 2000s.

The basic story of filibuster reform is that there are cross-pressures for Senators between their interests as party members and their interests as individual Senators. It may be true that Republicans are more likely to think of themselves as party members than Democrats are, but I think it’s unlikely that Republicans wouldn’t be cross-pressured at least to some extent. And that means that they, too, might be reluctant to act.

Of course, all that assumes that the filibuster survives intact until Republicans get the White House and a Senate majority. If Democrats have a couple of good election cycles while Tea Partiers continue to gain seats in the Senate at the expense of other conservative Republicans, then that’s probably not very likely.

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.