The GOP Debate on the Filibuster

As the intra-GOP debate over the Senate filibuster extends (mostly via the determined litmus-testing of Hugh Hewitt) deep into the presidential field, an interesting phenomenon is emerging that should help convince progressives of where they should come down on the subject. Politico‘s Daniel Strauss and Burgess Everett tote up the for and against columns. Bear with me, this is a necessarily long quote:

Thus far on Hewitt’s show, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have argued for using the so-called Reid Rule to get rid of the filibuster and repeal the Affordable Care Act. Hewitt also put the question to Scott Walker at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, and the Wisconsin governor replied, “Yes, absolutely….”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hasn’t gone quite as far, telling Hewitt he would “certainly consider that….”

The debate over the critical tool of the Senate minority comes as Senate Democrats are blocking spending bills with their procedural leverage, irking Republicans who can’t get their appropriations bills even debated on the Senate floor. But those same Republicans used the filibuster to great effect during an eight-year Senate Democratic majority, stifling climate change legislation, gun background checks and a higher minimum wage in a similar fashion.

In the Senate, one party’s talking points are just an election cycle from turning over completely. So the four Republicans who are running for president are wary of becoming boosters for axing the very same filibuster that several of them have used for political advantage. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for one, demanded that raising the debt ceiling require 60 votes in 2014, forcing Republican party leaders to break Cruz’s filibuster to stave off a default.

So despite running against what he calls the “Washington cartel,” Cruz sides with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in favor of keeping the filibuster. Sen. Marco Rubio’s office signaled that the Florida senator is leaning more toward Graham and Cruz.

“Senator Rubio is open to discussing all options to repeal Obamacare, but believes that the filibuster has been an important tool in stopping Democrats’ efforts to expand government,” Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul’s office declined to comment. “We are not providing a comment at this time. However, I am sure the senator will weigh in the near future,” Paul spokeswoman Jilian Lane told POLITICO.

However, the Kentucky senator — who like Cruz is running against the “Washington machine” — wrote a POLITICO op-ed in December 2012 urging Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) not to go through with changing the Senate’s rules.

“The Senate was intended to be a place where legislation was slowed down,” wrote Paul, who made a name for himself in his early days in the Senate using secret holds to stymie Democrats and President Barack Obama. “The Senate is supposed to be the ‘deliberative body.’”

To sum it all up, those GOPers who are looking at long-term considerations are lining up against filibuster reform. Those favoring it are almost exclusively talking about finding the most efficient means possible of passing exactly one piece of legislation: a complete Obamacare repeal.

Democrats may be tempted to take a position mirroring that of the Republicans excited about the possibility of wreaking maximum havoc on “the welfare state” via simple majority votes in the Senate, hanging on to the filibuster as a small-c-conservative way to obstruct unwanted change, or even just as a way to defend Obamacare. But aside from the fact that a Republican Congress and a Republican president can almost certainly find a way around the filibuster–via reconciliation, executive orders, appropriations measures, or a combo platter of them all–to destroy Obamacare, it’s helpful to look at the long-term picture, just as Senate Republicans are.

The filibuster is essentially anti-democratic, and produces gridlock at worst, and incoherent “compromises” between incompatible policies and points of view at best. It also decisively blurs accountability for results by thwarting the will of majorities that award one-party control of the federal government. Without the filibuster, the Affordable Care Act would have almost certainly included a public option that could hold down insurance premium increases; the “stimulus package” would have been considerably more “stimulative;” and quite possibly we’d already have a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Indeed, we really don’t know what might have been accomplished between 2009 and 2011. We do know Republican gains in 2010 probably could not have been any larger.

Now it’s entirely possible that pols–and particularly senators–in both parties will flip and flop constantly on the filibuster depending on its impact on their party’s short-term interests. But it’s also true that any Senate majority that is in the position to reimpose the filibuster once it is initially discarded probably does not, by definition, actually need it. So here’s hoping Republicans stampede towards a short-sighted destruction of the filibuster that will have long-term effects.

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.