What killed filibuster reform?

Senators have a disincentive for getting rid of the anti-majoritarian rule: It gives them more power

By Scott Lemieux
Published January 26, 2013 7:00PM (UTC)
main article image
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

The American Prospect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator McConnell reached an agreement yesterday that will be called "filibuster reform" by some reports. But as The Washington Post's Ezra Klein summarizes it, "The deal is this: The filibuster will not be reformed." There were some minor changes in the deal that will streamline the confirmation process for nominees to federal district courts (although not appeals courts), but overall the deal is a fizzle for supporters of filibuster reform.

The failure to reform the filibuster is a very bad thing. The question is why so many Democratic senators—including some blue-state representatives like Vermont's Patrick Leahy and California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer—showed so little inclination to act in the interests of progressive values.


One issue is that some senators may not accurately perceive the damage that the filibuster does to Democratic interests. One Senate staffer wrote Talking Points Memo to defend the non-reform:

I have not see anyone show how these rules will help advance the progressive cause and lack of reflection about how rules reforms under the constitutional option could be used to hurt us someday when President Rubio teams up with Speaker Cantor and Leader McConnell. Is the progressive community oblivious about what happens when the minority has no tools to prevent majority excess?

First of all, history strongly indicates that the filibuster is much more likely to be used to stop good legislation than to stop "majority excesses." But more important, the obvious answer to the question about what would happen if Republicans were able to control all three branches without the filibuster is "what happens in pretty much every other liberal democracy: elected majorities are able to govern." Losing elections is bad, but the solution is not to prevent the winners from governing effectively.

The larger problem, however, is that even for senators who understand the history of the filibuster and its inherently reactionary effects, the filibuster represents a disjuncture between the interests of progressives as a whole and the individual interests of Democratic senators. Collectively, the filibuster makes it harder to advance policy goals. But on an individual level, the filibuster and the Senate's other arcane minority-empowering procedures give senators far more power than ordinary members of a typical Democratic legislature (including the House of Representatives). This helps to explain why even relatively liberal senior members tend to be more reluctant to abandon the filibuster than newer Democratic senators; once you get used to power, it's hard to give it up.


The fact that giving up the filibuster requires that most senators give up power means that real filibuster reform will probably require a galvanizing issue (like the filibusters of civil-rights bills that caused the supermajority requirements to be reduced). With Republican control of the House of Representatives making legislation that is both good and important a non-starter for this term, reforming the filibuster would mean senators giving up concrete powers for gains that are abstract and longer-term. Filibuster reform probably won't happen until a major political battle—such as the serial filibustering of Supreme Court nominees—makes the policy costs not worth the institutional advantages to the majority party.

Scott Lemieux

MORE FROM Scott Lemieux

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barbara Boxer Ezra Klein Filibuster Filibuster Reform Patrick Leahy The American Prospect