Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Fixing the Filibuster

Writing in The NY Times today, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) made a compelling case for eliminating the filibuster once and for all. Reid himself, as he acknowledges in his article, abolished the filibuster for confirmations of most presidential appointees in 2013 Of course, what he should have done was eliminate the whole thing then and there, while he had the chance. The question at present, however, assuming the Democrats can actually regain control of the Senate, a crucial prerequisite to their accomplishing anything at all, is whether Reid's recommendation will ever be followed.

The qualifier that none of this matters unless the Democrats first regain Senate control is no mere technicality, given the Democrats' historic neglect of non-presidential politics. However one evaluates Barack Qbama as president, he was certainly unsuccessful as party leader - losing over the course of his two terms not only 11 Senate seats and 62 House seats, but also 12 Democratic governors and 958 state legislative seats. And, as the US divides more deeply into two separate competing cultures with nothing but their mutual hatred for each other in common, the prospects for recovering the senate seem more, not less difficult.

Assuming somehow that the country elects a Democratic Senate next year, what would happen? Would the majority act to restore some semblance of procedural sanity to the system by abolishing the filibuster once and for all? If Harry Reid is now a belated convert to Senatorial democracy, what about the candidates for president? What about front-runner potential President Joe Biden?. As some of the former Senator's recent unfortunate comments have shown, he suffers from a severe case of senatorial nostalgia for an earlier era of "the world's greatest deliberative body." The fact, of course, is that the Senate has long ceased to be a serious deliberative body and, in any case, the purpose of such deliberation is supposed to be legislating, something which an immobilized Senate has virtually ceased to do.

Admittedly institutional reforms, however necessary or desirable, seldom inspire or excite. And no conceivable constitutional or other change can rid us of the Senate, however desirable such a change might be. But there is nothing constitutionally mandated about holding on to the century-old procedural nightmare that is the filibuster. If a future Democratic Administration has any actual agenda, then the only conceivable way to enact it at all would be by, first, winning a working majority in the Senate and then governing by majority (as the constitution clearly contemplated the Senate doing).

Misplaced nostalgia for an earlier era of "the world's greatest deliberative body" is a symptom of the peculiar idea that our present predicament is largely due to one president's idiosyncrasies, rather than reflections of deeply felt ideological and cultural conflicts that have poisoned our politics, a politics already rendered quasi-dysfunctional by its systemic weaknesses such as the Senate itself and its foolish filibuster rule.

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