Sen. Harry Reid is finally leaving Washington — or at least, leaving political office — and many members of both parties will shed no tears at his departure.
There are plenty of reasons to dislike Reid: His blatant, mindless partisanship that seemingly knows no bounds; his willingness to go to any lengths to smear his enemies; and his continual attempts to manipulate the rules in his favor. Indeed, Reid’s willingness to change the rules to advance his own agenda has come back to hurt Democrats as they prepare for the new reality of a Republican president and Republican Congress.
Way back in 2013, shortly after President Obama won re-election, Reid pushed through a rule change eliminating the filibuster for all nominations except those to the Supreme Court. Reid was thinking in the short term, trying to help Obama get more of his nominations confirmed. Now, though, his short sightedness has left Democrats in a perilous position as they face the prospect of standing up to the incoming Trump administration. Since they were unable to regain the majority in the U.S. Senate, Democrats basically have no capability to block any of Trump’s appointments. As long as Trump doesn’t alienate his own party, he shouldn’t have any trouble getting his entire cabinet confirmed.
That’s just the beginning, though.
After Reid changed the rules for filibusters, he hinted at eliminating the filibuster for the Supreme Court, too. Now, with Republicans about to take charge of both the Senate and the presidency, there are some advocating calling on the GOP to take the final step and eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations and legislation in general.
This would be dangerous, unwise, and inadvisable for a number of reasons.
Eliminating the filibuster to make life easier for Trump to get his way would, first and foremost, be absurdly hypocritical. After all, Republicans have successfully (and correctly) used the filibuster to stymie Obama’s agenda for the past eight years. So, to turn around and eliminate it the moment they seize power would be a blatant abandonment of principle. Indeed, there’s a good chance that the voters who gave them power on the promise of change might see this kind of manipulation as business as usual, and not as a fulfillment of their campaign promises.
The filibuster is more than just an obscure mechanism that parliamentarians use to stymie progress and get their way. Just like the Constitution, the Supreme Court and, indeed, Congress itself, the filibuster is one of the norms of our governing system. Although it’s not quite as permanent as the aforementioned institutions, it’s become an embedded feature of our democracy — and it is indeed a feature, not a bug.
It’s true, the filibuster is often frustrating to partisans on both sides. Those who advocate for drastic changes in our society might like to see it done away with — just as it might be easier to get things done without the Constitution getting in the way. However, if you’re a conservative salivating at the thought of what Republicans might be able to do without a filibuster, imagine for a moment if the shoe were back on the other foot.
There are plenty of bills that either party could pass with a simple majority that could do enormous damage to this country without being blatantly unconstitutional. The filibuster, instead of impeding progress, acts as a check on the excesses of both parties, pushing both closer to the center. That may, at times, be frustrating to ideologues. But in the long run, it forces both parties to compromise. In the end, that’s a better path forward for the country as a whole.