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No, Republicans Wouldn’t Eliminate The Filibuster

Matt Steinglass argues that if the GOP regains control of the Senate in November, they are going to eliminate the filibuster in order to allow themselves to pass the bills they want:

If the Republicans retake the Senate next year and have the opportunity to pass major legislation, I think it very likely they’ll get rid of the filibuster, or pare it back in some complicated way that pertains to the issues they consider important. There’s nothing in the constitution about needing to have 60 votes in the Senate. Democrats would have been better able to accomplish their agenda in 2009 and 2010 if they’d scrapped the filibuster, but they’re too fragmented and hesitant to make those kinds of aggressive rule changes. Republicans have tighter party discipline, and the tea-party wing hates complex Washington rules that prevent the people’s will from being done. I don’t really see what’s going to stop the GOP from making the changes they need to pass their agenda with a simple majority, if that’s what they need to do.

Greg Sargent isn’t quite as sure as Steinglass about what might happen, but still argues that it’s a possibility if the GOP thinks they can get away with it and if a Republican wins the White House (if Obama is re-elected, as Sargent correctly points out, there’s no point in eliminating the filibuster since the veto pen still exists).  Kevin Drum, on the other hand, argues that the GOP is unlikely to take this move, for some very obvious reasons:

If they really did believe they were demographically doomed, and had only two years to save America from an apocalyptic Euro-secular future of moral decay and economic disintegration, then maybe they’d think about it. But I don’t think they believe this. They believe that politics will continue pretty much the way it always has, and they’re going to need the filibuster in the future.

Besides, this doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. If Republicans really do believe that their party is demographically doomed and 2012 is their last stand, this means they also believe that Democrats will take back control of the government in 2016. And if the filibuster has already been mowed down, the jig is up. We’ll have single-payer healthcare, abortion clinics on every corner, and gay marriage at gunpoint by 2017.

Either way, then, the filibuster is safe. If politics continues as normal, Republicans will need the filibuster. If Democrats are going to sweep to power in 2016, Republicans will need the filibuster. It’s not going anywhere.

While I think this demographic doom argument that Drum refers to, which is based on the Jonathan Chait article that James Joyner wrote about earlier this week, is mostly nonsense Drum is absolutely right in his assessment of how the Republicans would view the filibuster issue should they retake the Senate in 2012, or 2014 which may be more likely. Just as the Democrats have refrained from attacking the filibuster while they’ve been in the majority, based largely on the objection on long-serving members who pointed out that the Party would not always be in the majority and would want to make use of the filibuster rules someday, a resurgent Republican majority in the Senate is going to be restrained by institutional memory, and the all-too close memories of 2007-2012. After the 2010 elections, the Democrats weren’t even able to garner 50  votes for the relatively modest filibuster reform package put forward by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a proposal that didn’t come anywhere close to eliminating the filibuster. What makes anyone think that the Republicans would be able to do anything different, especially since whatever majority they would have is likely to be incredibly slim to begin with?

This isn’t to say that the filibuster doesn’t stand need of reform, of course. As I noted at the time, Senator Merkley’s proposal, which would have required a Senator purporting to block a piece of legislation to be able to demonstrate support for his position in order to go forward, was a good idea. Another idea that many have suggested is to eliminate, or at least severely limit, the filibuster for nominations, especially judicial nominations. Others have suggested that a Senator purporting to filibuster a measure should actually be forced to hold the floor in order to delay Senate action in the style of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Perhaps we don’t need to go that far, we also don’t need to eliminate the filibuster entirely since it does serve the purpose of holding back majoritarianism and protecting the rights and interests of minorities. The odds of any reform happening, of course, is pretty slim, so Steinglass and Sargent and sleep soundly tonight. The filibuster is here to stay.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Jib says:

    Well someone needs to get rid of the filibuster. The senate is a dysfunctional institution. It either needs to get corrected or eliminated. The only justification for filibuster IS lifetime judicial nominees. They have no check or balance after they are seated. It should take a super majority to grant anyone that power.

    Holds are a bigger problem than filibuster, one senator can stop anyone from being put to a vote. That is crazy. The solution will be for the president to nominate a person and have that person go ahead and serve UNTIL they are voted on. If voted down, then the person steps down. At least that would eliminate the hold as a weapon.

    I agree though, nothing will be done until one party gets control of the white house, house and senate AND is blocked in the senate from getting something major passed. Then the filibuster will be gone.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  2. Rob in CT says:

    @Jib:

    The Dems had that very situation and didn’t do it. They did the reconcilliation thing instead.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    While I think this demographic doom argument that Drum refers to, which is based on the Jonathan Chait article that James Joyner wrote about earlier this week, is mostly nonsense

    Mostly nonsense? Really? There aren’t considerable generational and ethnic demographic shifts taking place that are likely to disadvantage the Republican party?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  4. legion says:

    @Jib: I don’t have nearly so big a problem with filibusters – yes, they can be abused, but look at how much their overuse has tarnished the GOP. It’s painfully obvious that the entire party is intellectually & morally bankrupt, and has no actual ideas to contribute beyond “I wanna be in charge!”.

    I agree completely on holds, however. Especially the anonymous holds. There’s absolutely no organizational excuse for putting that much power in the hands of a single member of Congress.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  5. legion says:

    Also, while I agree that the “demographic doom” justification is pure smoke, I don’t think it’s so cut-and-dried that it wouldn’t happen. Do you really think that a both-house-Republican Congress would hesitate to cut off it’s own nose to spite the Dems?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. Graham says:

    @Brummagem Joe: Those generational and ethnic demographic changes wouldn’t hurt the Republicans one bit if they weren’t hell-bent on catering to scared, old racists.

    They’ll wise up eventually if for no other reason than the current crop of scared, old racists will die, and conservatives will still want a party.

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  7. steve says:

    I will go on record as disagreeing with you Doug. If Romney or not-Romney wins, and the GOP takes back the Senate, I predict that the GOP will do away with the filibuster. They can then pass anything they want. They can undo many things they want to undo. I think they will also calculate that this will energize their base like nothing else could.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @steve:

    I think they will also calculate that this will energize their base like nothing else could.

    And pi$$ off the rest of the country so badly that they will not see power again for a century.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. JohnMcC says:

    There are so many ‘veto points’ baked into the cake in our legislative process that singling out the veto is, well, either ridiculous or merely symbolic. As someone pointed out above, the way a Senator can place an anonymous ‘hold’ on a nominee for a post in a huge range of Fed offices is absolutely nuts.

    If there were two parties that agreed that the Fed Gov’t has an important job to do — you know, governing? — there would be a joint committee to streamline the entire legislative process.

    And if my mother had wheels, she’d be a tea cart.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. Jib says:

    @Rob in CT: Only because they were within 1 vote of overturning a veto. And even that setup a long drawn out fight with the last few votes holding the whole thing hostage. I would have much preferred the dems to get rid of the filibuster and pass health care earlier with 55 or so votes. I think it would have been a better bill, fewer of the last minute ‘gifts’, and the quicker process would have been better for the dems in 2010.

    The senate filibuster is profoundly undemocratic. Given that the senate is highly unrepresentative of the number of voters (2 per state regardless of population), it allows people representing a very small section of our population to dictate what can get done. Maybe for special cases, like supreme court nominees this is fine but as a normal way to do daily biz, it is insane.

    And throw in the current ‘bills for contributions’ (aka legal bribes) environment and the filibuster is a great vehicle for graft. Which is why I think the senators do not want to get rid of it. I think a lot of them raise big cash on holding up legislation.

    Nominee holds are a even bigger issue with bribes. If you cant get the laws you want, the 2nd best thing is to get to pick the people who will enforce the laws.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Jib:

    The senate filibuster is profoundly undemocratic. Given that the senate is highly unrepresentative of the number of voters (2 per state regardless of population), it allows people representing a very small section of our population to dictate what can get done. Maybe for special cases, like supreme court nominees this is fine but as a normal way to do daily biz, it is insane.

    Agree entirely. It’s the tyranny of the minority which starts with the allocation of electoral seats by state rather than population that is then compounded by demanding super majorities to pass anything. As to whether Republicans would change the rules given the chance it’s hard to say. Doug advances a lot of rational arguments but that assumes you’re dealing with rational people. The odds are against it but I wouldn’t put it past them since they’ve shown a willingness to game the system without regard to the national interest.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I like the filibuster. Lots of times the best legislation is that which never gets to the floor in the first instance. Besides, instead of complaining about the filibuster why not work that much harder to get 60 votes? There’s no need to worry about someone filibustering if you’ve got the ability to call for and then to impose cloture.

    That all said, the one area in which there needs to be some reform is that of judicial nominees. That’s a critical function and, unlike the process of writing legislation, it’s an area of presidential prerogative. Each judicial nominee should get an up or down floor vote. Same for cabinet appointments.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  13. Ron Beasley says:

    @Brummagem Joe:

    As to whether Republicans would change the rules given the chance it’s hard to say. Doug advances a lot of rational arguments but that assumes you’re dealing with rational people.

    Correct: Doug is living in an alternate reality where the current Republican Party is sane.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. Ron,

    It only takes one or two members of the GOP caucus to block an effort to radically reform the filibuster. Considering that any GOP majority in 2013 would like be 51-49 or 52-48 at best, that’s not at all inconceivable, especially since that’s exactly what put the kibosh on Democratic efforts to change the filibuster after the 2010 elections

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  15. James says:

    The Senate structure is designed to prevent the desires of a few population centers from controlling the country. It forces legislation to have the support of members of less populous states.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. Ron Beasley says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I don’t really disagree with you. But the sanity level of Senate Republicans has taken some serious blows. Snowe is gone – can Lugar survive a TP challenge or even Hatch. McConnell has given little indication he’s willing to stand up to the TPs. How long before the Senate Republicans are 100% insane.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. Ron Beasley says:

    @Jib: I agree – the filibuster can result in rule by the minority. The Senate by it’s very nature already does that since very small conservative states hold as much power as larger states. The filibuster only exacerbates that inequality. When the filibuster was used sparingly it was not a real problem but now that there is so much polarization it makes the Senate dysfunctional.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. Turner says:

    Look at the last several years dating back to 1860’s: boom, bust, up, down, recessions/depressions, expanding economy or declining, huge problems that have created continued unrest and a national psychosis of pessimism and lethargy. What is behind these problems? I know that many people will find this hard to follow and perceive, but I feel that the numerous continued problems in this country, problems that have been on going, are direct results of the War of Secession that was fought from 1861 – 1865, but strife was occurring before the official start of this horrific, costly conflict, one that has left lasting scars on this country’s psyche, economy, and social conditions. It has kept this country’s leaders and citizens in a depressed, morose state of mind that reaches over generations. As a very young child, I remember my relatives and neighbors that had known some of the War veterans and could repeat word for word their personal accounts of the battles. I am not talking about just racial problems only. When one looks both closely and broadly at the terrible loss of life, suffering, and total destruction of this war, and the debacle of the Northern occupational armies (the most disastrous occupationary force in world history) under the hugely false term “Reconstruction”: Destruction would be a more accurate description for this tragic era in our history, which did not really end until the late 1950′s. Look at the terrible loss of life that cost this country leadership and expertise in all areas. Look at the total destruction of many parts of this country, heavy in the south of course, that has held this country back because there was not any sensible plan to rebuild. When there were rebuilding efforts, it just involved very narrow locations and was confined to just property. There are many other effects that continue. The country’s problems continued with the Native American “solution” which was pure subjugation of a whole nation and further application of government philosophies of regionalistic domination. The economy was wrecked by the tactics of General Sherman and the control of this country by many banking interests that included international involvement. A wholistic recovery effort never happened.
    I know that many will not understand or agree with this. I urge you to read books about this occurrence, look at the appalling photographs, and study the mind boggling statistics. Then you will maybe comprehend the unbelievably heavy psychological burden and veil that this mammoth event with its long reaching tentacles of despair and still has on this country. We have had few, brief periods of somewhat normalcy. I have spent a long time in forming this timely theory.

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  19. Jr says:

    @Graham: Please…..minorities have a long memory. It is going to take a long time for them to every vote GOP.

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  20. An Interested Party says:

    @Turner: In other words, things would have been so much better over the past 150 years if only certain people in the South had been allowed to carry out their treasonous acts and form a proud new country built on holding human beings as property…I assume how you came up with your screen name was not accidental…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Latino_in_Boston says:

    As a liberal and a Democrat (with both small and big D’s), I really wish they would get rid of the filibuster entirely. I’ve never been convinced of this protecting minorities stuff. Who are these minorities that need protecting? And what’s the justification for curtailing the majorities’ policy preferences in any case? As it is the Senate is severely malapportioned, the filibuster exacerbates this further so that the slightly over 500,000 people in Alaska, Wyoming, or Vermont—and actually less, since only a small percentage of those people vote and an even smaller percentage provides the decisive vote for the sitting Senator in those states–can prevent the rest of the country from getting what they want unless they can muster supermajorities.

    The filibuster is one of the reasons why we it’s so difficult to get any legislation passed that is coherent and is not cobbled up with discarded pieces the lobbyists have left behind.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. Heck, if the Republicans were interested in repealing the filibuster that would get me totally behind a GOP Senate takeover.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. Latino_in_Boston says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I’m with you Steven. That platform would actually make me vote for Scott Brown.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Graham says:

    @Jr: Long is a relative term. I don’t think it would be long at all, in terms of election cycles, for conservative immigrants to vote for a conservative party that wasn’t inherently anti-immigrant.

    The Republican party in its current form is untenable and self destructive. Either there will be reforms within the GOP (my guess) or it will collapse and a new party will emerge to take its place.

    A lot of things have happened in the last decade to make me question the efficacy of the American system of government, but we’re not headed for a one party state any time soon.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  25. Tillman says:

    Others have suggested that a Senator purporting to filibuster a measure should actually be forced to hold the floor in order to delay Senate action in the style of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Perhaps we don’t need to go that far…

    No, I disagree. We need to go that far. Make the filibuster difficult and a huge personal political risk, and then watch how many decide to continue using it.

    And screw holds.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  26. superdestroyer says:

    @Graham:

    It does not matter what conservatives want. It matters what the voters want and most voters want nothing to do with any conservative idea.

    So the question is does the U.S. need to liberal parties or can the fight over government goodies, who pays, and who benefits occur inside one party.

    If you look at current day California, does anyone believe that conservatives will ever be relevant again versus a continued drift to the left. It is much more likely that the last few conseravtives in California will vote with their feet instead of bother to try to affect policy and governance.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. superdestroyer says:

    The more likely scenario is that the Democrats keep control of the Senate (and that is the more likely scenario) that they will push to get rid of the filibuster. The Democrats will finally put their huge demographic advantage to use and eliminate the filibuster knowing that the Republicans party is fading away and that the filibuster is the only thing that makes the Republicans relevant in the Senate.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I’m inclined to agree that holds are the more pressing problem.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. @Gromitt Gunn: Yes, but the two are linked. The main reason a hold exists is because a filibuster is ultimately possible.

    No filibuster threat, the hold loses its animating power.

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