The Democrats' strange zeal for filibuster reform

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  • The filibuster makes hypocrites of everyone in Washington. @RameshPonnuru

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  • At first and even second glance, it’s hard to see what the filibuster fuss is about. @RameshPonnuru

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  • When the federal government was small, the filibuster helped to keep it that way because it protects the status quo.

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The filibuster makes hypocrites of everyone in Washington. In 2005, Harry Reid was the leader of the minority party in the Senate. He said that it would be an “abuse of power” to reduce the minority’s power with a simple majority vote. Now he leads a Democratic majority, and he is preparing to do exactly that.

Republicans have flipped in the other direction. In 2005, they tried to use a majority vote to end filibusters against judicial nominees, but now they are complaining about Reid’s plans -- and borrowing his old rhetoric to do it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell lost his customary cool while speaking about it last week.

At first and even second glance, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. The Democrats say that their reform, as they call it, would preserve the filibuster while reining in abuses. The minority could still make it impossible to pass a bill unless it had 60 supporters, for example, but a bill would no longer need that many votes to be taken up for debate.

What, then, are the Democrats so excited about accomplishing? Liberal journalists have been railing against the 60-vote requirement that the modern use of the filibuster creates ever since the Democrats took the Senate in 2007. Yet the filibuster wasn’t able to stop them from enacting sweeping health-care legislation that the public opposed. The Democrats can list only a few recent examples of legislation that passed the House, had majority support in the Senate and failed because of a filibuster.

Democrats’ Objective

The key to the mystery is that passing more legislation isn’t the Senate Democrats’ immediate objective. They know the Republican House will block any partisan measure they pass. What they want, first, is to set a precedent for changing the Senate rules with 51 votes. That way, they can restrict the filibuster more in the future should it become useful to do so -- and even before then, Republicans will know, in case they use the filibuster too often, that Democrats have the power to abolish it.

Second, Democrats want to be able to confirm appointees. The health-care law sets up a cost-cutting board, but President Barack Obama hasn’t nominated anyone to it. One reason is probably that he didn’t want a filibuster drawing attention to an unpopular aspect of his record before the election.

Third, the Democrats want to shape the debate over bills. By threatening to prevent the Senate from taking up a bill, the minority can force the majority to let it offer amendments. If the Democrats take away that power, the minority will have to make an up-or-down choice on legislation it would prefer to modify.

Fourth, they want more control over the Senate calendar. The minority’s power to extend debate slows down the Senate and forces the majority to discard low priorities. Republicans have killed at least as much legislation by delaying tactics as they have by raising vote requirements.

The standard assumption in debates about Senate procedure is that in the long run, taking account of the fact that each party gets control some of the time, liberals have an interest in making it easier for the Senate to get things done.

Timothy Noah, a liberal opponent of the filibuster, recently gave voice to this view: “Democrats are always going to mind government inaction a lot more than Republicans, who believe that he who governs best governs least. Washington gridlock inherently promotes conservatism.”

Filibuster Value

That’s not quite right. When the federal government was small, the filibuster helped to keep it that way because it protects the status quo. If American politics ever changed so much that most legislation aimed to pare back government, however, the filibuster would protect the big-government status quo. That day may seem impossibly far off, given the liberal confidence and conservative pessimism of this post-election period.

With the passage of the health-care law, however, liberalism finally finished the project of building the American welfare state. Its main job now is to protect and refine what has already been won. Matthew Yglesias, another liberal writer, said so at the time: “The crux of the matter is that progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done.”

If that’s right, then liberals have less to gain, and conservatives less to fear, from making it easier to pass new laws than either side now thinks.

Liberals who want to grease the skids for legislation and conservatives who don’t are both betting that the next few decades will go better for the former than the latter. That may look like a good wager right now, but Harry Reid could one day find himself on the wrong end of it, and sooner than he thinks.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at

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About the Author


  • A senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics and public policy for 18 years, Ponnuru is also a columnist for Bloomberg View. A prolific writer, he is the author of a monograph about Japanese industrial policy and a book about American politics and the sanctity of human life. At AEI, Ponnuru examines the future of conservatism, with particular attention to health care, economic policy, and constitutionalism.


    • "The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life," Regnery Publishing, 2006

    • "The Mystery of Japanese Growth," AEI Press, 1995

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