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Filibuster Overturned

Mitch McConnell gives a thumbs up after changing the Senate rules to force through Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation on a party-line vote.

The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, and the slim Republican majority, blocked by a Democratic filibuster, have voted to change the rules to allow a simple majority, rather than a 3/5 majority to close debate (cloture) on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Gorsuch will then be approved. This is a tactic that was initiated three years ago by the Democratic Majority Leader, Harry Reid, in order to counter GOP obstruction of President Obama’s appointments, but the change at that time did not apply to Supreme Court nominations.

Thus, a climate of increasing political polarization dating from at least the Clinton years is finally producing the extinction of a tradition of unlimited debate as a tactic for blocking or delaying nominations.

The filibuster on legislation is still alive—for now. But it’s on life support.

This change certainly will cost the Democrats in the short run, and pose some challenges to them in the long run, but I nonetheless submit that it is on balance a good thing. The overrepresentation of small states poses a problem to my position, because the majority of the Senate is inherently drawn from the smaller states, and most of those states tend to vote Republican. But Democrats in substantial numbers also come from small states like Rhode Island, Delaware, and even North Dakota, and Republicans have historically had trouble getting and keeping control of the Senate.

Instead of mourning the loss of an undemocratic tool like the filibuster, Democrats ought to be reflecting on how we got to be a minority in the Senate, and how we can escape that fate.

The Senate is an inherently undemocratic body because it grossly overrepresents states with small populations. There is nothing to do about that: 3/4 of states are not going to vote to approve a constitutional amendment that would deprive them of that overrepresentation. On top of that, though, Senate rules give minorities of senators—and even individual senators, the right to obstruct Senate action. An individual senator, for example, has the prerogative to put a hold on a bill or nomination, without giving a reason, indefinitely.

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The filibuster is the best-known of these antimajoritarian rules. It has, more often than not, been used in service of reactionary purposes such as blocking civil rights laws. The Republicans will do considerable damage over the next three years without the filibuster, but they will not always control the Senate. When the Democrats return to power (we hope in 2020) they will be glad to be rid of the it. The Republican minority will not lack for other ways of gumming up the works in any case, but they won’t have the filibuster.

Instead of mourning the loss of an undemocratic tool like the filibuster, Democrats ought to be reflecting on how we got to be a minority in the Senate, and how we can escape that fate.

We got here due to gross mismanagement of every election from 2010 to 2016. Obama’s political operatives first blew a filibuster-proof Senate majority in the special election for Ted Kennedy’s seat, when Scott Brown won. Then they failed to adequately respond to the Tea Party movement, which led the GOP to gains in the Senate, control of the House, and most importantly, control of most state legislatures.

That last conquest allowed the incredibly effective Republican gerrymandering of the legislatures and the federal House of Representatives. The Republicans since then have only had to play defense in both the federal House and the legislatures. The Senate finally fell to the GOP in 2014. Given the number of seats the GOP had to defend in 2016, and the fact that Hillary did win the popular vote, there is just no excuse for the Democrats failing to retake the Senate. But they didn’t, and so here we are.

Looking ahead, let’s not worry about losing the filibuster as a tool for the Senate minority; let’s worry about how we can become the majority again.

john peeler

John Peeler