For the last four years, one of the Left’s top policy priorities has been filibuster reform. The requirement that most legislation must have at least 60 votes to pass the Senate has long been a frustration to the party in power, and a salvation to those in the minority. Last month, Republicans successfully watered down an effort by Senate Democrats to roll back the filibuster. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, it is conservatives — not liberals — who have the most to gain from filibuster reform.
The progressive agitation for filibuster reform came out of the 2009 fight to get Obamacare through the Senate. The 2008 elections gave Democrats control of 60 seats in the Senate: in theory, a filibuster-proof majority. Democrats immediately went to work on their decades-old dream of imposing single-payer health care on the country. But because then-senators Ben Nelson (D., Neb.) and Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.) refused to support a government-run “public option,” that provision was dropped from the health-care bill in December of 2009.
Progressives were furious. “This is not real reform,” exclaimed former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean. “This is a bill that was fundamentally written by staffers who are friendly to the insurance industry . . . It’s not health care reform. And I think it’s too bad that it should come to this. . . . I’d kill the bill entirely.” (Dean, and most other progressives, eventually cooled off and supported the bill.)
Ever since then, Democrats have believed that the main obstacle to enacting their policy agenda has been the filibuster. This month, two freshman Democratic senators, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tom Udall of New Mexico, sponsored a plan to make it much harder to conduct a filibuster, by going back to the old Mr. Smith Goes to Washington requirement that senators must remain on the floor and talk continuously in order to hold up legislation.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), who remembers well his time in the minority, worked with his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell (Ky.), to dismember the Merkley-Udall bill. “I’m not personally, at this stage, ready to get rid of the 60-vote threshold,” Reid told Ezra Klein. “We have to understand that the Senate isn’t and shouldn’t be like the House.” Republicans exhaled in relief.
The irony is that it wasn’t so long ago that Republicans were the ones clenching foam-rubber stress balls in frustration at Democratic filibuster intransigence. Democrats filibustered so many of George W. Bush’s judicial nominees that, in 2005, Senate Republicans considered a “nuclear option” that would have subjected federal judgeships to a simple majority vote. The effort was thwarted by a bipartisan “Gang of 14” including Republican senators McCain (Ariz.) and Graham (S.C.).
It’s precisely the threat of a filibuster that has prevented Republican presidents from appointing openly conservative candidates to the Supreme Court. Instead, GOP executives have opted for ciphers with vague paper trails: a strategy that has led to appointments like those of David Souter, who turned into a reliably liberal voice on the bench, and John Roberts, who is singlehandedly responsible for the fact that Obamacare remains on the books. Democratic presidents have had no comparable problems with their judicial appointments.
It is a matter of equal, if not greater, importance that Republican attempts at entitlement reform have been thwarted by the filibuster. In 2005, George W. Bush proposed a far-reaching plan to put Social Security on a permanently stable financial footing. It was scotched, because of united opposition from minority Democrats. Bush’s 2003 bill to add prescription-drug coverage to Medicare originally contained a Paul Ryan–style “premium support” plan to reform the rest of Medicare. That provision was dropped because Democrats would have filibustered it.
It has been 104 years since the Republican Party controlled 60 seats in the Senate. In that span, the Democrats have controlled 60 seats in twelve different Congresses: from 1935 to 1943, 1959 to 1969, 1975 to 1979, and 2009 to 2010. While political alignments and filibuster thresholds have changed, only Democrats have achieved the supermajorities needed to transform the country, through programs like the New Deal and the Great Society, with no comparable legislation in the other direction from Republicans.
When it comes to domestic policy, conservatives have two goals above all others: put the country back on the road to solvency, and restore constitutional conservatism to the Supreme Court. Republicans will never achieve either unless they go along with Democratic efforts to eliminate the filibuster. Instead of worrying about their influence over the next two years, GOP senators ought to keep their eyes on the long-term prize.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.