If the Founding Fathers could see the Senate after today’s vote by Senate Democrats to prohibit filibusters of most presidential appointments, they would, of course, be appalled. “What are all these women doing here?” they would ask. But as for the filibuster reform, they’d wonder what all the fuss was about.
There is no mention of the filibuster in the Constitution. Until very recently in U.S. history, filibusters were rarely used. Half of all filibusters of executive-branch nominees have occurred under President Obama, and it was obvious from the first day of his presidency that Republicans would use the tactic to hamstring the government and block Obama.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, then, had every right to push for changes to filibuster rules four years ago, when GOP use of the filibuster was already out of control. But instead, Reid offered deal after deal to Senate Republicans. They accepted some. They honored none. Instead, the delaying tactics have continued. Frequently they have been used to block the implementation of laws the Senate had passed — the two-year filibustering of the first head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for example, just because Republicans didn’t like the law. And Republicans have paired judicial nullification with legislative nullification, blocking a record number of Obama’s judicial appointees — a power the Constitution actually mentions, unlike the filibuster — for no real reason other than that they were Democratic nominees, not Republican ones. (Democrats were guilty of this under President George W. Bush as well, it must be noted, and deserve criticism for that, even if the number of filibusters was lower.)
The result, as political scientist Gregory Koger summed up nicely for my Post colleague Ezra Klein, has been the solidifying of a new order in the U.S. system of government:
Over the last 50 years, we have added a new veto point in American politics. It used to be the House, the Senate and the president, and now it’s the House, the president, the Senate majority and the Senate minority. Now you need to get past four veto points to pass legislation. That’s a huge change of constitutional priorities. But it’s been done, almost unintentionally, through procedural strategies of party leaders.
This status quo is unacceptable and had to change.
But Reid never would have used the “nuclear option” without the lemming-like behavior of Senate Republicans. Less ideological GOP members could have voted more frequently to break cloture and force an up-or-down vote, as members of both parties have done, even as filibuster use has increased. They could have stopped the unprecedented number of filibusters of presidential nominations, given that the president has a clearly defined constitutional responsibility to appoint people. They could have stopped blocking duly passed laws. But they didn’t.
So Republicans decrying filibuster reform as “dictatorial” or “a day to be sad” or other hyperbolic claims should look in the mirror. No one forced them to turn filibusters from a rarity to an oft-used tool for nullification and unprecedented obstruction. They have only themselves to blame.
Follow James Downie on Twitter.