Let the filibuster die

by Michael Sean Winters

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In his final interview with Politico before leaving the Senate, Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid predicted that the filibuster would soon die. He should know: He helped kill it, limiting its use when he was majority leader. In any event, let it die.

I know, I know. Many Democrats think that the filibuster is the only thing standing between them and certain defeat on issues that they care about in the next four years. The filibuster is the only thing that will prevent the Republicans from enacting laws that Democrats would like to block. I would have no trouble with defunding Planned Parenthood, but many Democrats would. I suspect that there are tax and budget bills the GOP will ram through that will do grave harm to the country's finances and to the poor. Much of the damage to labor laws and environmental regulations will come from executive orders and won't be affected by the death of the filibuster.

In the short term, then, many on the left will be upset if the filibuster goes away. But in the long term, the country is better off without it. It is one of the most obstructionist developments in the history of parliamentary procedure and has caused much of the gridlock that so frustrates voters with the ways of Washington.

If anything, current interpretations of our constitutional framework put too much stock in the thesis that the founding fathers were suspicious of majority tyranny and thus filled the Constitution with provisions designed to frustrate the majority will. In their time and place, the founders were indeed suspicious of pure democracy. No one was sure it would work. Most political philosophy at the time held up the balanced British constitution as the governmental system most inclined to produce justice and prosperity, and that was when the king's authority, though waning, was still real. In that context, almost every step the founders took was towards majority rule and a more pure democracy than what any of them knew at the national level.

Donald Trump's election is evidence the founders did not have of the dangers of democracy! Of course, if our democracy were totally pure, America would be readying itself for our first female president. At last check, Hillary Clinton's margin in the popular vote nationally was around 2.7 million and growing.

All these inhibitions to government action, however, have produced a government that is non-responsive. People want different things from government, to be sure: When polls show that, say, 70 percent of the country think the government is on the wrong track, the pollsters tend not to follow up and find out what percentage think the wrong track is too liberal or too conservative. But the sense that government is dysfunctional does not serve the future of democracy at all.

Democrats, especially, should recognize the value of eliminating the filibuster. Currently, one's position on the parliamentary tactic's legitimacy is purely a function of whether your party is in the majority or not. But that just invites another demonstration of hypocrisy. Over the long haul, Democrats, as the party that favors governmental action, are harmed far more than Republicans when government doesn't function at all. Indeed, the political genius, albeit a cynical variety of genius, of Sen. Mitch McConnell these past few years was simply to obstruct so that Obama and the Democrats would be blamed for everything. It only cost him when he went too far and shut down the government.

"Went too far." If there is no filibuster, will the parties develop a sense of self-restraint? After all, in parliamentary systems like in the U.K., parties do learn to move thoughtfully and carefully when in power, even though there is no real check on them. They know that if they disrupt the country overmuch, there will be a price to pay at the next election. Currently, most members know they will get re-elected no matter what happens or doesn't happen because of gerrymandering, but that is also because the only things that have been accomplished are things with overwhelming support. If the GOP were to use its new power to push through wildly unpopular legislation, that calculus could change.

Since the election, for example, some Republicans have talked about privatizing Medicare, something they have long wished to achieve. I say, "Let them do it!" I cannot think of a single thing the Republicans could do to consign them to minority status for a generation than to touch Medicare. I am guessing Trump would not even support such an effort. But that prospect of certain electoral doom would put Republican leaders in a position of having to decide whether they wish to follow their ideology or their constituents. And, what is more, once they realize they need to act reasonably, it would be harder for other kooky ideas to gain traction in the first place: If Congress is dysfunctional and nothing is going to get done, it costs nothing to support extreme ideas.

So let the filibuster die. Make members of Congress act more like grown-ups. Make government more responsive, and, pretty quickly, the parties will become less susceptible to extreme ideas. Democrats especially have nothing to fear from a government that works, even if it means the next four years will be tough.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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