Here’s a safe bet: When the coronavirus pandemic finally ends and cocktail parties become a thing again, most of us won’t be leaning in to catch every word from the process wonk holding forth about the Senate filibuster.
Yet it’s still worth noting that we’ve just seen an important new, filibuster-related development, one that may change the way business is (or isn’t) done in Washington’s broken chamber — and that might possibly serve as a prompt for a broader change of practice.
Eye-glazing though it may seem, if you simply think of the filibuster as the minority’s ability to obstruct the majority, you can see why it matters. Democrats control the presidency and the House and have an exceedingly narrow edge in the 50-50 Senate — the tie-breaking vote of Kamala Harris, who by virtue of being vice president, presides over that body.
But a majority that slim — or really any majority shy of three-fifths — is impotent if, by invoking the threat of a filibuster, Republicans can require that anything and everything needs 60 votes to pass, rather than 51. The same, of course, would be true if the power positions were reversed. In recent decades, when Republicans were in power, Democrats have hardly been pikers about deploying the blocking tactic.
Defenders of the filibuster maintain that letting a Senate minority use the process to require 60 votes on legislation forces the majority to compromise, thereby leading to results that are more broadly acceptable to a geographically vast and demographically diverse country.
But in practice, if the minority party’s principal goal is obstruction, the filibuster is only a negative tool. And that is largely what it’s been for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. He has used the filibuster not to pursue compromise but to foster gridlock, often in the hope that the Democrats will bear the brunt of voters’ frustration with inaction.
One way the party in power has gotten big things done in recent years is via the so-called budget reconciliation rules. Bills passed under those rules — rules that can be used only when there is a tax or spending tie-in — aren’t subject to the filibuster. But heretofore, the reconciliation process could be invoked only once per fiscal year, which basically translates to twice a calendar year.
That limitation has led to the dynamic we’re seeing with President Biden: A push to cram any number of unrelated items into one omnibus bill. After all, if the majority party believes it will get only one or two containment vessels per year through the narrow canal that leads to political success, the incentive is to load it up like the Ever Given.
So, high-flung rhetoric about the compromise-promoting nature of the filibuster notwithstanding, if the minority party uses the filibuster principally for obstruction, the reaction of the majority party won’t be to move toward the middle in the hope of attracting more minority-party support, but rather to push for the maximum on which its own caucus can agree.
And now, the twice-a-year restriction on reconciliation has changed. The Senate parliamentarian has now ruled that the reconciliation process can be reopened and amended. At very least, that means two big filibuster-free bills each fiscal year, and perhaps more.
This is good short-term news for the Democrats, obviously — but it’s a double-edged sword. The impulse will be to do all they can while they can through reconciliation, an impulse made more urgent by Democrats’ desire to act on climate change, while Republicans either deny human-caused warming or remain indifferent about addressing it.
But there are other considerations here as well. When possible, there really is a value to policy that’s more broadly agreed on by federal decision-makers. For starters, important matters aren’t then subject to endless repeal efforts.
And what of the future? The MAGA movement may consign the GOP to internecine fighting and reduced voter affiliation in the short term. But what happens if Republicans once again find themselves in unified control of Washington?
This should be a moment for serious people on both sides of the aisle to initiate a discussion about ways to make the Senate work again. Or would be if more senators were the way we like to envision them — that is, as wise and far-seeing men and women.