Breaking the Filibuster Habit

When asked recently by Ezra Klein of Vox about what we can do to reduce gridlock and dysfunction, the president had this to say:

Probably the one thing that we could change without a constitutional amendment that would make a difference here would be the elimination of the routine use of the filibuster in the Senate.

Because I think that does, in an era in which the parties are more polarized, it almost ensures greater gridlock and less clarity in terms of the positions of the parties. There’s nothing in the Constitution that requires it. The framers were pretty good about designing a House, a Senate, two years versus six-year terms, every state getting two senators. There were a whole bunch of things in there to assure that a majority didn’t just run rampant. The filibuster in this modern age probably just torques it too far in the direction of a majority party not being able to govern effectively and move forward its platform. And I think that’s an area where we can make some improvement.

That’s a perspective most Democrats have shared–until the takeover of the Senate by the GOP. And even now, Senate Democrats sound a bit guilty about their use of the filibuster, per this comment given to Politico‘s Burgess Everett:

Democrats have vowed to be far more selective with the legislative filibuster than Republicans were during their eight years in the minority, pointing to the agreements they’ve made this year on amendment votes and swift consideration of a pair of noncontroversial bills. Any senator can hold up the Senate and require 60 votes for legislation to advance, a practice that became increasingly popular among Republicans during Obama’s presidency.

But the 46 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus are wielding the filibuster too, slowing progress on the Keystone XL pipeline in January and vowing this month to reject any Homeland Security bill that contains riders attacking Obama’s immigration policies. They say they will debate immigration, but only separately from the funding bill.

“We don’t see ourselves as filibustering,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). “We’re not just stopping things to stop it. We feel that we’re actually being constructive.”

Huh. Nobody ever “sees themselves” or “feels” they’re just “stopping things to stop it,” and if they do, they’re not much going to admit it, are they? I suppose if Senate Democrats go lightly on filibustering in the next few years–particularly if they have the Supreme temptation of a Republican president and Congress to deal with after 2016–then they can retroactively show they’re putting the routine filibuster in the box and bringing back the vague principle of a filibuster used only when necessary. But I don’t know how that’s supposed to guide them right now. The filibuster has always been a monstrous but mitigated abuse–monstrous in its antidemocratic pretensions but mitigated by rare use. I see little reason for its use right now when the president has the power to veto any legislation that might succumb to a filibuster. And even if the power to filibuster is formally preserved, this would seem to be an ideal time to get out of the habit of deploying it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.