First, it must be said, the filibuster is just a tradition.
It’s not in the U.S. Constitution. It’s not in the law. It’s a Senate rule that requires a supermajority to agree to end debate.
The filibuster is a hallmark of the Senate, which is supposed to be a more deliberative body than the cacophonous House. The filibuster gives even the newest member of the Senate clout that House members only dream about.
But it’s not written on stone tablets.
That may be one reason why then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided in 2013 to use the so-called nuclear option and change the rules. Facing an ever-growing number of filibusters blocking then-President Barack Obama’s appointments of judges and administration officials, Reid and the majority decreed the filibuster could no longer be used to thwart those nominations.
Pointedly, Reid left the filibuster intact for Supreme Court nominees and for all legislation. Still, the minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned that Reid and his Democrats would come to regret the move.
A few years later, with McConnell in Reid’s old majority office and President Donald Trump in the White House, Republicans went on a judicial nomination spree. McConnell, citing Reid’s precedent, erased the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, and Democrats watched helplessly as a trio of conservative justices won appointment to the high court.
Flash forward to today: Democrats are back in control, thanks to a 50-50 Senate split and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. President Joe Biden is in the White House. And Republicans are using the tattered remains of the filibuster to block a bill on voting rights.
Another fork in the road.
Reid, for his part, has called for his former colleagues to do away with the filibuster. A number of Democrats agree. There is but a short window until the next election in 2022, they argue, and Republicans have shown little inclination to cooperate. Better to get what they can before potentially losing the majority.
Still, news broke late last week that a deal had been struck on a proposed bill to spend money on infrastructure. The compromise bill is both smaller, less expensive and more attenuated than Biden’s original version, but that’s the beauty of consensus government — compromise. And the threat of the filibuster did a lot to make that compromise happen. Without it, the original bill could have been muscled through the Senate the way it was in the House.
For progressives, this is not a victory in any appreciable sense. It’s like drinking a watered-down adult beverage: tasteless, weak and essentially pointless.
But it’s probably worth considering the alternative, which would require something Washington rarely stops to ponder: the future. Instead of considering the next two years, consider the next 20. Or 200.
Republicans will eventually be in control of the Senate again. They may eventually be in control of the House and the presidency again, even all three at the same time. (Given new voter restrictions being passed in certain states and the fact that the Supreme Court has said it can’t rule on most partisan redistricting cases, one might even say the return of GOP control is likely.)
When that day comes, how will Democrats feel about Republicans having the power to pass any law without the ability of the minority party in the Senate to stand in the way? National voter ID laws? The pre-emption of local gun controls? Ever tighter restrictions on abortion? The rollback of environmental rules?
Those aren’t even theoretical constructs. Many are actual bills pending in state legislatures right now.
Democrats in the past have used the filibuster to stop Republicans from simply passing any laws they wish. But if the filibuster is finally wiped away, that option will be gone. In the words of McConnell, Democrats will live to regret that decision.
Politics is vicious enough with each party running a constant, zero-sum campaign for supermajority dominance so there will be nothing to block their agenda from becoming law. Removing the filibuster will make that constant campaign only easier.
Instead of post-election compromise, we will see nothing but legislation that caters to base voters, with no need to compromise and certainly no need to ask what the common good requires. “Vengeance and power” may as well replace “e pluribus unum” on our money.
It’s great if your side is in charge. But always remember: Your side will never be in charge forever.
Contact Steve Sebelius at SSebelius@reviewjournal.com. Follow @SteveSebelius on Twitter.