Congress

Please Just End the Filibuster—for Everything


U.S. Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks to members of the media in Washington on Nov. 19

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) speaks to members of the media in Washington on Nov. 19

Harry Reid finally did it. Democrats voted to change the Senate’s rules, and as of this afternoon, it takes only 51 votes to approve a presidential nominee.

This has always been called the “nuclear option,” the unthinkable. Not only was it thought today; it was ignited. As passed, the rule change does not apply to Supreme Court nominees or legislation. For now. Back in June, Mitch McConnell promised to go nuclear on everything in response to any limited nuclear strike by the Democrats—if and when his party takes control of the Senate.

Great. Please, Mitch, please. The filibuster cannot end soon enough. It is not in the Constitution but rather a historical procedural accident that minorities first discovered in the 19th century. With each new wave of minority abuse—1917, 1975—has come a corresponding filibuster reform, limiting the power. The problem with the filibuster is not its actual use (though I’m having a hard time coming up with an example when a filibuster accomplished something history has looked on with kindness) but its threat.

The simple need to get to 60 votes makes every senator’s vote worth more. As Harold Myerson, a Nobel prize-winning game theorist, pointed out in a paper, the harder the Senate has to work to get a bill, the more each individual vote is worth. The filibuster is not about protecting the minority. It is about preserving the power of each senator to shape the final bill.

I have to admit a weak spot for Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s antics. He has earned himself some enemies in his first term by violating decorum. Again, great. Please. More, Ted, more. There is not a deliberative body in the world more desperately in need of violation. Every time a Senate Gang of Six or Eight has stood up and announced with solemn self-love some new compromise that will let some judges squeak through and preserve the power of the filibuster, they have not been preserving the minority. They have been preserving the negotiating power of each and every senator, on both sides of the aisle.

Every president should get a chance to screw things up completely in his or her unique way. Most other democracies have adopted a parliamentary system for precisely this reason. Win a parliamentary vote, form a coalition, and a prime minister can do exactly as he or she pleases until it’s time for a new vote, at which time every party is judged on the failures of its big new ideas.

Barack Obama should have the ability to screw up. As should Chris Christie. The American experiment survived before the filibuster was discovered, and it has survived with each new filibuster reform. Please, Mitch. Win the Senate and end this. If you do, at the very least, I will never have to write this rant again.

Greeley-brendan-190
Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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