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Politics & Policy

Deconstructing Some Arguments for Nuking the Filibuster

The U.S. Capitol during a morning rainstorm on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 25, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

As the potential for unified Democratic control of Congress and the White House in 2021 grows, so too has an appetite for nuking the filibuster. This recent Atlantic piece by Ron Brownstein lays out the arguments mounted by progressive activists to justify going nuclear.

But some of these arguments are puzzling. Some of Brownstein’s sources suggest that police reform might be the issue that causes Democrats to nuke the filibuster. However, there is considerable evidence that Senate Republicans are quite willing to pass some version of police reform. South Carolina’s Tim Scott has been a major voice for police reform and has been in discussions with Hill Democrats about the issue. Ironically enough for claims that Democrats might in 2021 use police reform as the rallying cry for nuking the filibuster, Democrats themselves mounted a filibuster against Scott’s police-reform bill.

Indeed, criminal-justice reform has been a place for bipartisan cooperation in Congress. The First Step Act is one of the few major bipartisan bills that has passed Congress during the Trump presidency. Scott’s police-reform bill includes measures supported by many Democrats, so there definitely seems like a possibility of some bipartisan deal.

Of course, some activists might not want a bipartisan deal, but this raises another question about political stability. Brownstein finds that another reason Democrats might seek to nuke the filibuster in 2021 is that they fear that absolute power might be fleeting: “The last four times a president — of either party — went into a midterm with unified control, voters have revoked it.” Yet the fact that the American people seem averse to unified party control might be at odds with the advice that, once it has unified control, a party should try to push through a sweeping, no-compromise agenda. That could set the stage for a cycle of escalating polarization.

American intellectuals have long been infatuated with the idea of importing a parliamentary mode of governance (with ideologically polarized parties and intense partisan discipline) into U.S. politics. However, that model of parliamentary polarization seems an uncomfortable fit for the United States, with its multiple branches and staggered federal elections. Only a little over ten of the past 40 years have seen unified party control of Congress and the White House. This suggests that, if governing is going to get done most of the time, it will take collaboration between both parties. A move-fast-and-break-things approach to policy seems at odds with the kind of collaborative buy-in that U.S. politics usually demands (as I noted when I warned Republicans against nuking the filibuster in 2016).


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