With the GOP’s continued failures to pass anything even vaguely resembling Obamacare repeal, President Trump is once again ramping up his calls to end the legislative filibuster in the Senate. This is the mechanism that requires 60 votes to proceed on legislation, rather than the bare majority of 51. The filibuster is a Senate tradition, designed to make the chamber less reflexive and more deliberative and to prevent hasty legislation legislation from being pushed through without a fair amount of debate. However, in recent years, senators on both sides of the aisle have expressed frustration with their inability to get anything done and have suggested that the filibuster be discarded in favor of simple majority voting.
I’ve always maintained that this would be a mistake; most legislation is poorly thought out and has unintended consequences. Making bills easier to pass seems like it would, on balance, do more harm than good. But a lot has changed about politics since I first came to Washington, and the country is more divided than ever, so let’s take a look at some of the arguments for and against ending the filibuster once and for all.
Pro #1: It would let the Republicans pass something.
Donald Trump came into office promising Obamacare repeal, tax reform, and a host of other legislative goals. Yet after nine months in office, despite control of the House, Senate, and White House, Republicans have delivered … basically nothing. Right now, it’s easy for them to blame the Democrats and their raw and personal hatred of the president allowing them to block anything and everything he wants to get done. Eliminating the filibuster would let Republicans fulfill some of their promises to voters and get about the business of governing, with no more excuses.
Con #1: It would let the Republicans pass something.
The above is correct in theory, but the reality is something different. So far, all the “efforts” we’ve seen by Republicans to actually keep their promises have been weak-kneed, to say the least. Leadership refuses to allow a vote on a clean repeal of Obamacare, and tax reform efforts have been even more pathetic. There’s no reason to think that the ability to pass legislation with a bare majority will suddenly lift Republicans out of the pockets of the insurance industry and turn them into good conservative legislators.
Pro #2: The Democrats are going to do it anyway.
It’s all but certain that as soon as the Democrats regain power in the White House and Senate, they will end the filibuster to push through the legislation they want. Harry Reid already ended the 60-vote threshold for judicial nominations, and there was a lot of talk about ending the filibuster entirely. It’s very unlikely they won’t pursue this course of action next time around. Given that, shouldn’t Republicans get there first to try to preemptively stop some of the damage an unrestrained Democratic Senate could unleash?
Con #2: It goes against the basic nature of limited government.
The filibuster, while not in the Constitution, was instituted as a matter of Senate tradition as a way to uphold the values of the American notion of government: Namely, that laws should be difficult to pass, so that only the important issues, governed by consensus, got through. Over time, government has grown bigger and bigger, and too many people have adopted the mindset that the government needs to act, quickly and decisively, to deal with every problem in the country. The filibuster is an important reminder that this is not the point of government, at least not if it is to be free from tyranny.
Con #3: It turns every issue into a political football.
It may be that the end of the filibuster is an inevitability, given the divided nature of our country. If so, one of the saddest outcomes of that will be the fact that every issue will become a partisan football that gets kicked back and forth, depending on who is in power. Expect federal policy on every issue from health care and taxes to drug legalization, gay marriage, and immigration to dramatically change every time there’s an election. This means no consistency, no predictability, and no certainty for anyone trying to live and work in America. It will be impossible to make plans, and that in itself will deal a heavy blow to the economy, not to mention the mental well-being of the country’s citizens.
On balance, I would still rather retain the filibuster, but it seems like both parties are determined to end it at this point. Unless we can find a way to work together and respect each other, I suspect the future of legislation is going to be dueling majorities endlessly fighting for a supremacy that will never come.