Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Against Democratic Certainty That Republicans Will Go Nuclear Next Time

Paul Waldman makes a claim that I see all the time:
Let's be realistic here. Unless there's some kind of major upheaval within the Republican party that moves it back to the center, when the day comes that there's a Republican president and a Republican senate, the filibuster will be gone. It won't take a Democratic minority using it with the profligacy Republicans have, either. All it will take is one filibuster on something Republicans care about. Today's Republicans don't care about the institution's traditions, or about what kind of precedent they might set. They care about getting what they want. If you think they won't do it, you haven't been paying much attention to American politics over the last five years.
Of course, there's no way to prove this one way or another, certainly not yet. But while I think Republicans have less restraint than Democrats do in violating norms, I think this claim is overstated.

After all, we do have some experience with this: Republicans really didn't get rid of the filibuster during the George W. Bush presidency. Are current Republican Senators really all that different than Frist-era Republican Senators? Maybe. Maybe not.

In fact, Republicans during the Bush years wound up arguing that judicial filibusters were illegitimate (although enough were willing to cut a deal that nothing was done). They probably didn't care about executive branch nominations because Democrats basically didn't use the filibuster against those, so it wasn't a big deal. Legislation, though, mattered -- and Republicans from 2003 through 2006 did nothing to end filibusters on bills, even though Democrats continued the Bob Dole practice of filibustering all major bills.

Would things be different for a Republican Senate in 2017 or 2021? Maybe. On the other hand, the longer they remain in the Senate minority, the more Republican Senators will use strong language in support of rules which allow obstruction. That won't entirely constrain them in the future, as it hasn't completely constrained Democrats who were in those Bush-era Senate minorities, but it will tend to constrain them. It's no surprise that many of those Democrats least enthusiastic about eliminating the filibuster are those who made strong pro-filibuster statements during the years of Republican majorities in the 1990s and 2000s.

The basic story of filibuster reform is that there are cross-pressures for Senators between their interests as party members and their interests as individual Senators. It may be true that Republicans are more likely to think of themselves as party members than Democrats are, but I think it's unlikely that Republicans wouldn't be cross-pressured at least to some extent. And that means that they, too, might be reluctant to act.

Of course, all that assumes that the filibuster survives intact until Republicans get the White House and a Senate majority. If Democrats have a couple of good election cycles while Tea Partiers continue to gain seats in the Senate at the expense of other conservative Republicans, then that's probably not very likely.


  1. I'd be wary of using Democrats' conduct to forecast Republicans'. That is, I doubt that having gone on record in support of the filibuster would be a deterrent to most Republicans when it comes time to kill it. Witness now: they don't seem to have much problem with "disaster relief for me, but not for thee."

  2. I'd also be wary of using 2005-06 Senate Republicans' conduct to forecast 2017-18 or 2021-22 Senate Republicans' conduct. The 2005-06 Senate Republicans were much more moderate and establishment-minded than the current Republican caucus. Think of the moderate-ish Republicans who were in the Senate in 2005-06 and are now gone ... Snowe, Lugar, Hagel, Domenici, Liddy Dole, Hutchison, Mel Martinez, Gordon Smith, Specter (R), Chafee, John Warner, and more. And that caucus is trending to become more radical, not less, with each election cycle. Will Kirk, Collins, McCain, Murkowski, Chambliss and Isakson still be in the Senate in four years time? Finally, in the era of the conservative feedback loop, I don't think the Tea Party base would allow Senate Republicans to tolerate Dem filibusters even if they wanted to.

  3. Democrats want to pass new legislation so it makes sense they would be favorable towards rules reform when the minority obstructs them. Republicans mostly want to block the Democrats from passing bills. Even when the GOP gets the majority next, they won't do away with the filibuster because they will want to have that tool available to stop the next Democratic Senate from adding a public option, passing cap-and-trade, passing card check, passing immigration reform, passing gun control, raising taxes on high incomes, etc.

  4. I think the real reason that Republicans won't reform the filibuster is because they won't need to. If Republicans regain the Senate and Democrats engaged in obstruction to the extent Republicans do now, Republicans would do something about it. But I doubt Democrats will engage in that level of obstruction, and if they do they'll back down in the face of Republican threats to go nuclear, like they did last time.

  5. Step back a minute, and think of this from a game theory pov: for any senator, ideal filibuster frequency is

    a) always (when in the minority), and
    b) almost never (when in the majority).

    So Paul Waldman, echoing liberal orthodoxy, is certain that Republicans are so damn crazy that they will immediately nuke the filibuster, once back in power? The only sensible response therefore for a Democratic senator, who cherishes access to the filibuster once back in the minority, is to tread very lightly, or in the model above, to go to it almost never.

    Waldman's famous book is called Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success. Based on the linked column, it would appear that's the kind of book he should be reading, not writing.

    1. I think a) is actually very wrong. Senators should care at least a little (and preferably more than a little) about passing legislation that is good for the country, confirming qualified nominees to the Executive and Judicial branches, and the general efficiency and comity of the Senate even when they are in the minority. That the GOP minority the past 5 years has gone full Machiavelli doesn't mean that is the natural or desirable state of affairs.

  6. The Republicans just needed to threaten to go nuclear last time to effectively end the filibuster on judicial nominations that they cared most about. The Gang of 14 was just a no-filibuster rule in sheep's clothing.

    But that's OK. What would be best now is for Reid to find his Gang of 14.

  7. Call me old fashioned but I kind of like the filibuster. Our checks and balances system isn't pretty sometimes but it's worked for over 200 years now.


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