Is the Wonk Blog making the right case for filibuster reform?
posted at 1:01 pm on December 7, 2012 by Dustin Siggins
Earlier this week, Washington Post Wonk Blog staff reporter Dylan Matthews posted about 17 bills that passed the House and were held up by filibuster in the Senate since 2009. From the post:
Arguments over the filibuster tend to devolve into relatively esoteric debates about minority rights and majority rule. But let’s ground this conversation in real-world consequences: In the absence of the filibuster, what laws would have passed the Senate that didn’t?
In order to limit the size of the search, we begin the clock with the 111th Congress, which began in January 2009. We’re looking for bills that got more than 50 votes in the Senate but that didn’t make it to the president’s desk. In most cases, bills that failed due to a filibuster in the 111th Congress had already passed the House, so they would be law today. In the 112th Congress, the Republican House was less aligned with the Democratic Senate, and so passage in the Senate does not mean the bills would gave been passed into law.
A disclaimer: If there was no filibuster, the two parties’ strategies would be different. The bills they pushed would almost certainly be different. No examination of roll-call votes will reveal the bills that would’ve been passed in a world without the filibuster, but which the majority party didn’t bother pursuing because they recognized they would be filibustered.
Matthews’ list is pretty substantive, covering the DREAM Act, the Employee Free Choice Act, the public option, the American Jobs Act, the Buffett Rule, and judicial nominees.
When I first saw this, I was a bit taken aback that Matthews stopped at 2009, and assumed he wanted to talk about policies only liberals wanted, which is what most of his list consisted of. In a brief phone conversation this afternoon, Matthews explained why his post examined only bills stopped in the Obama era:
We stopped in 2009 somewhat arbitrarily, because people noticed bills weren’t getting through the Senate in that year. Also, there weren’t bills of the same magnitude and scale that passed the House and were held up by filibuster in the Senate in the prior four years. I am certainly open to going back and doing more research on that, however.
Now, the Wonk Blog is pretty liberal, and of course what Matthews considers major legislation I may consider minor, and vice-versa. I also am glad pretty much everything in his list got stopped. Either way, though, I thought perhaps this liberal bias is why Ezra Klein, who runs the Wonk Blog, has focused so much on filibuster reform in the last couple of years. In an e-mail conversation, however, Klein informed me that his stance against filibuster reform is relatively recent, and directed me to a 2010 blog post showing his intended reforms would actually have a non-partisan angle to them:
We are, however, getting closer and closer to the day when someone does change the rules. Republicans tried to protect judges from the filibuster under Sen. Bill Frist. Democrats are talking about changing the rules at the start of the 112th Congress. And now that they’re talking about it, are they really confident that if Republicans take the Senate back in 2012 or 2014, that they won’t do what the Democrats couldn’t and change the rules in their favor?
My oft-expressed preference is for Republicans and Democrats to figure something out jointly and set it into motion such that it either phases in over the next few years or begins six years from now, when we don’t know who’ll be in control. But if that’s not going to happen, then members of both parties have to be thinking: Do they really want to be the side the rules get changed on, rather than the side that changes the rules?
Unfortunately, while Klein’s stated intent is to defend democracy and democratic change, I think his case (and the Democrats’ case today, and the Republicans’ case in 2005) case misses the fact that our system of governance was not designed to be fast. It was not designed to be a democracy; it was designed to be a democratic republic. This is why we have a separation of powers, and why we have federalism, and why Senators were originally picked by state legislatures.
Do both parties use the filibuster as weapons against what they don’t want for purely political reasons? Absolutely. And the push for filibuster reform now is being promoted by the party (and some of the same people) who opposed it in 2005. But regardless of the party in power, to dilute the power of the filibuster is to forget that the Founders intended change to be slow, to be carefully examined, etc.
Off the top of my head, it occurs to me that some of the major pieces of legislation that have passed in a bipartisan manner in the Senate and become law in recent years have really been bad laws. No Child Left Behind, TARP, the stimulus (okay, that one was barely bipartisan), and the Patriot Act are a few examples. Do we want a system where even more legislation can be pushed through even more quickly? I don’t think so.
Dustin Siggins is the principal blogger for the Tea Party Patriots, a national grassroots coalition with more than 3,500 local chapters. He is also a co-founder of LibertyUnyielding.com, and the author of a forthcoming book on the national debt. The opinions expressed are his own.