December 4, 2012

Ramesh Ponnuru argues that Democrats should be careful about what they ask for when it comes to Senate reform. He has a good point: While some liberals have always supported eliminating minority obstruction in the Senate, others have certainly flipped from their positions when George W. Bush was president and Bill Frist was majority leader — and they may regret that flip during the Jeb or George P. or George Michael Bush presidency down the line sometime. 

Still, Ponnuru makes a couple of important mistakes, which serve to remind that it’s not all hypocrisy. 

First, he argues, “When the federal government was small, the filibuster helped to keep it that way because it protects the status quo.” But that’s not really correct; the filibuster wasn’t really a major factor blocking the adoption of most New Deal and Great Society programs (or, for that matter, national security and federal criminal law programs), with the obvious exception of any bills to end segregation and other institutionalized bigotry. Filibusters were rare until long after government grew to something like its current size.

Second, Ponnuru refers to “the 60-vote requirement that the modern use of the filibuster creates.” Well, only in a technical sense. Once again: The idea that the minority party will automatically require 60 votes on everything dates all the way back to … 2009. Indeed, before 1993, only occasional bills and nominations needed 60; even after that, 60 was mostly reserved for only important measures. Only after Barack Obama took office in 2009 did Republicans exploit the rules to create a true 60-vote Senate. 

So, yes, it is absolutely true that the filibuster makes hypocrites of many, and it’s also true that partisan supporters of strict majority-party rule in the Senate should be aware of the dangers that reform entails.

But the truth of the matter is that a 60-vote Senate just doesn’t work, and has never worked — at least not without a very large partisan majority, which we can’t expect to happen very often. It’s not going to last. The only real questions are when it is reformed, and what the reformed Senate will look like.