Running in the background during the fiscal cliff negotiations — if that’s what you can call the series of unrealistic proposals each side is making in the press — is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s push to curtail the filibuster.
Democrats won’t control the U.S. House for at least two more years, so the filibuster isn’t getting in the way of Reid and President Obama pursuing their legislative goals. Eliminating or limiting the scope of the filibuster would, however, allow Obama to push through his appointees more easily, and it could set a precedent for other expedited changes to Senate rules.
While both Republicans and Democrats lament the filibuster when in the majority but guard it jealously when in the minority, conservatives have traditionally been more sympathetic to the rule than liberals. That’s because the filibuster is seen as another brake on legislation, and conservatives tend to be more skeptical of a proliferation of new laws.
But Ramesh Ponnuru makes the interesting case in a Bloomberg View column that the filibuster’s true role is preventing change, regardless of ideology — and that liberals have more interest in keeping things more or less the way they are in Washington than conservatives do. Here’s the gist of his argument:
When the federal government was small, the filibuster helped to keep it that way because it protects the status quo. If American politics ever changed so much that most legislation aimed to pare back government, however, the filibuster would protect the big-government status quo. That day may seem impossibly far off, given the liberal confidence and conservative pessimism of this post-election period.
With the passage of the health-care law, however, liberalism finally finished the project of building the American welfare state. Its main job now is to protect and refine what has already been won. Matthew Yglesias, another liberal writer, said so at the time: “The crux of the matter is that progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done.”
If that’s right, then liberals have less to gain, and conservatives less to fear, from making it easier to pass new laws than either side now thinks.
Think, for instance, about potentially large changes to Obamacare. Most people assumed Obamacare’s status was settled by last month’s re-election of its namesake. But the refusal of many states to go along with their roles in carrying out the law, along with the emergence of previously unmentioned problems with the law’s implementation, means there’s a very high likelihood the law will have to be opened up to a serious reworking in the next few years. The same Democrats who want to change the filibuster now could, in the not-too-distant future, find themselves out of the majority in the Senate. In just four years, if a Republican wins the White House, a filibuster change could mean they find themselves totally locked out of the debate even if the GOP can’t get to 60 Senate seats. To paraphrase an old saying about big government, Senate rules expedient enough to give you everything you want are also expedient enough to take it all away.
There would be problems with that kind of approach, of course. For one, Republicans would invite a great deal of public backlash by making changes with only a narrow governing majority. Witness the 2010 electoral backlash against Democrats for the way they enacted Obamacare. Despite their sizable majorities, Democrats had to resort to procedural manipulations to overcome the objections not only of Republicans but of the more moderate senators in their own party.
Dramatic policy changes work better when the political buy-in is broader, which is one reason Obamacare remains unpopular. The filibuster in the Senate structurally helps make that more likely. It would be better on the whole to keep it in place. But, as Ponnuru points out, those who disagree might do well to be careful what they wish for.
– By Kyle Wingfield