Di­ag­nos­ing Democrats’ zeal for fil­i­buster re­form

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - From the right Mon­day Tues­day Wed­nes­day Thurs­day Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View colum­nist and a se­nior ed­i­tor at Na­tional Re­view; rpon­nuru@bloomberg.net. Fri­day Satur­day Sun­day

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.

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

Kath­leen Parker

David Brooks

Ross Douthat

Ramesh Ponnuru 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 upor-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.”

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.

With the pas­sage of the health care law, lib­er­al­ism has 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.

Amity Shlaes Charles Krautham­mer

Ge­orge Will

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