Ending the Filibuster: Be Careful What You Ask For
Today, no vote can take place in the Senate on substantive issues unless three-fifths of the Senate vote for cloture, ending debate on the matter. The image of a single senator -- Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- holding the floor in a lonely battle against bossism is iconic in American culture.
The filibuster is not a constitutional issue; it is simply part of the Senate rules. Prior to Woodrow Wilson, debate in the Senate, by rule, had been unlimited. This meant, in theory, that one senator could hold up proceedings in that body indefinitely. (In practice, though, a filibuster required several senators to work.)
Proposals to water the requirements of cloture down more have floated around for years. The majority, quite naturally, tends to favor tightening cloture, while the minority insists that filibusters are an important check on steamrolling legislation or judicial appointments. Republicans, when President Bush was facing a filibuster on his judicial nominees, favored the so-called "Nuclear Option" to allow a simple majority to vote on judicial nominees eight years ago. This prompted seven Republicans and seven Democrats to form the "Gang of Fourteen" to reach a compromise.
The filibuster has been a tool of the minority in the Senate to effectively require a supermajority for any changes in federal law. Because the filibuster is murky to ordinary voters, senators can also hide their obstruction of substantive votes by stating that they support more debate and compromise on issues -- a position that is much more easily defensible that outright opposition to a measure.
While the Constitution says nothing about filibusters, the Senate was clearly intended to be a body which mitigates pure democracy. The Senate terms are staggered so only one third of the body faces voters in any general election; this way, senators and any particular election could not transform the Senate. The Senate was also intended to be the states' guardians against federal power until the 17th Amendment stripped state legislatures of the power to choose senators and required instead the direct election of senators.
The Senate has unique rights under the Constitution which allow it to be a check on most constitutional actions. The Senate alone can confirm a federal appointment, which includes not only judges, but also cabinet secretaries, members of independent regulatory agencies, and other pivotal positions. The Senate alone can ratify treaties. The Senate alone can remove impeached federal officers. A Senate whose members had long, staggered terms and were chosen by state legislatures had the authority to stop almost any federal action.
Cloture, the power of a supermajority of the Senate to limit debate, was created in the Senate during the first term of Woodrow Wilson and was adopted at his insistence. It is not coincidental that about the same time, in 1913, the 17th Amendment was ratified. This was the time of exploding federal power and the creation a federal leviathan which over time grew and never shrank, intruded and never receded, commanded but never listened, and transformed federal elected officials into clients of Washington largess and power.
Today, this vast imperial system seems indestructible and immune to the howls of the taxed and regulated peons of Flyover Country. The leftist establishment, which permeates every aspect of life today, pretends -- and perhaps believes -- that it is an instrument of change and reform, but it is, of course, profoundly reactionary: nothing which affects its perks, it pride, its power, or its prosperity (almost always on the taxpayer's dime) is even considered.
Nothing the Senate ever does, really, is new anymore. The left's tired nostrums are rehashed pap, dreary repetitions of past failures, and vanities of its discredited aristocracy. The plan to remove filibustering may be the worst political mistake that the left has ever considered.
Conservatives have never possessed what leftists have often had: the power to really implement our ideas. We, not they, are the engines of hope and change. What would happen if in two years, conservatives actually passed a grand program -- enact a flat tax on all income, abolish all the federal regulatory agencies and devolve their power to states, freeze all federal spending, enact a school voucher program, and pass a national right to work law? Ordinary Americans would find the crushing yoke of the Leftist Establishment lifted.
That can't happen now. The Senate is now an integral part of "The System." The House, the most expedient and responsive part of our federal system, has been our most promising instrument of implementing conservative ideas. All we need is two years in which we can really do things.
The left has had forever (it seems) and does, really, nothing but prevent change. It sits pat on the mountain of its failures.
Senator Reid may remove a principal means of stopping revolutionary change. He should be careful what he asks for.