While many citizens groan when they hear about filibusters in the U.S. Senate, and complain that these lengthy monologues by grandstanding legislators only muck up the works, Washington is actually worse off without them. Today, in order to help get President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee confirmed, Senate Republicans changed the legislative body’s rules about ending filibusters. Traditionally, a filibuster could only be ended prematurely by invoking cloture with sixty votes. Now, under the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a mere simple majority of fifty-one votes is needed.
Citizens may be wondering what all the fuss is about: Filibusters are still allowed, but it just takes nine fewer votes to abruptly end them. Without cloture, the filibuster continues until the pontificating Senator can no longer hold the floor. The longest filibuster ever was 24 hours and 18 minutes, in an attempt by segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond to delay voting on the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Unlike in the movies, filibusters rarely, if ever, change the vote on a bill or substantially affect public opinion – the goal is to delay voting on a bill in an attempt to get provisions changed.
If a bill faces the threat of a filibuster, it will likely be edited to make it more palatable to those threatening said filibuster. Importantly, the threat of filibustering is one of the few tools available to the minority party in the U.S. Senate. If everything in the Senate was accomplished by a mere simple majority, the majority party could simply do whatever it wanted.
Since 2013, both parties have begun chipping away at the filibuster protection for majority parties. Almost four years ago, the Democrats were in control of the Senate and decided to end the use of the filibuster when it came to presidential appointees. The rationale was that Republicans were refusing to play fair and intentionally stonewalling the necessary confirmation votes of President Barack Obama’s nominees for various positions.
In a bit of irony rarely so perfectly rendered, the GOP has come out swinging against the planned liberal filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch by using almost exactly the same language the Dems used in 2013.
Although Senate Majority Leader McConnell has promised that the filibuster and sixty-vote cloture will remain for legislation, the fact that the cloture rules began changing in 2013 after a twenty-five-year debate over such an option is ominous. If the majority party has changed the rules for presidential nominees, it is not such a big step to change it for traditional bills. A perfect example of stonewalling on bills was seen with Obamacare in 2009 and 2010: The GOP dragged its feet and refused to cooperate in any manner on the healthcare legislation.
Today, Democrats are being equally stubborn when it comes to Republican attempts at healthcare reform. How long will it be before the GOP, as the majority party in both the House and Senate, suggests that rules need to be adjusted to prevent Democratic stonewalling on “important legislation”? And, the fact that both parties have now weakened the filibusters means that future revenge tactics are likely: Each party can justify its own use of the “nuclear option” as fair play against a radical opponent.
Since the GOP used the “nuclear option” regarding Supreme Court nominees, Democrats will inevitably try to justify using the nuclear option elsewhere as tit-for-tat as soon as they get the chance. If the Democrats regain the Senate and retake control of either the House of Representatives or the Oval Office, they will argue that it is the GOP that is intentionally trying to thwart “good” legislation. Senate Republicans would look very hypocritical trying to argue that the Dems were out of line.
With both parties trying to remove tools that can be used by the minority party to force compromise, our nation is losing a crucial check against the passage of more radical bills. If a simple majority in the Senate is all that is now required to guarantee success, you lose the need to compromise and attract members of the opposition to support your proposal. No longer will anybody shoot for sixty Senators; the goal is now a mere fifty-one. If this were academics, it would be condemned as outrageous grade inflation. Shoddier work is receiving a passing grade.
If a Senator only needs fifty-one checkmarks rather than sixty, it leads to lazier legislation. Why bother trying to appeal to any members of the minority party? We have long seen this problem in the House, where there is no filibuster privilege for members. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) says that he does not want to work with Democrats on healthcare form. This is, frankly, childish. By publicly stating that he does not care a whit for bipartisanship, Rep. Ryan is only encouraging the immature aggression of fellow Republicans, including Senators.
Instead of trying to improve America, it seems that partisan hacks of both parties are more interested in thwarting the opposition at any cost. It is a sad day.