The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s ‘51%’ Senate would upend precedent for short-term gain

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell watch President Trump deliver his inaugural address. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

After talking around the subject for a while, most notably in an interview with Fox News last Friday, President Trump finally spoke his mind on Twitter on Tuesday. The reason that the budget bill was a compromise between Republicans and Democrats, he said, was that “we need 60 votes in the Senate which are not there.” The solution? “[E]either elect more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%.”

What Trump’s saying, of course, is that he wants to toss out the filibuster in the Senate completely, reverting the body to a simple majority-based system. That’s very fitting with the Trump we know, for a variety of reasons. It’s an effort to give himself more power, it breaks with centuries of tradition — and it’s completely shortsighted.

The Senate was created to be the more deliberative body, reaching consensus outside the tumult of having to run for office every two years. In 2018, the entire House could be voted out and replaced; only one-thirds of the Senate can be replaced in any given federal cycle. It was built to ensure a voice for less-populated states, allowing Wyoming the same number of votes as New York. Combined with the power of the filibuster, that made the Senate a place where big states had to consider the will of smaller states, for better or worse.

Of late, though, the power has flipped. Votes early in the 115th Congress frequently saw states representing a minority of the country imposing their will on the majority, thanks largely to the body’s decision to roll back the filibuster on Cabinet nominees. Under Trump’s 51 percent standard (or, really, a 50.5 percent standard, since the vice president can break ties), the power of smaller states would grow even more. For a president that holds his office thanks to the secondary importance of the superiority of population, it’s easy to see why that’s appealing.

But while it would make votes easier — and give Trump more power and significantly shift the role of one-half of one-third of the government — it wouldn’t necessarily do Trump that much good over the long term.

Use of the filibuster has increased in recent years, and, therefore, so have cloture votes seeking to end those blockades.

The 113th Congress was the congress with the most cloture votes in recent years, and, not coincidentally, was also the congress during which the then-Democratic majority first scaled back the use of the filibuster. Notice that most of the votes on cloture in that Congress fell into the almost-passing-but-not-quite range of 51 to 59 “aye” votes. Overall, since the 101st Congress, about 44 percent of cloture votes have ended filibusters, and about 44 percent have fallen into that greater-than-a-majority-but-not-quite range.

Broken out by the number of votes, the results look like this. The most common results for a cloture vote are 52 and 53 ayes.

Why? Because cloture votes are usually forced when there are more than 50 and fewer than 60 votes. It’s not rocket science. If you oppose legislation and know that your opponent can’t get to 60 votes, you filibuster.

The nature of politics, though, means that these numbers are often artificial. You might see 53 senators voting for cloture though only, say, 50 would vote for the actual bill. It’s hard to say how those 52- or 53-vote cloture fights would have looked if the vote were on the bill itself.

Generally, of course, this would allow the Republican majority to move legislation at a much faster pace. The problem that emerges, though, is that gutting the filibuster will eventually come back to haunt the GOP, once, as is inevitable, the Democrats retake the Senate. Since 1981 (the 97th Congress), the Senate has switched hands or become evenly split every 2.7 congresses. The Republicans just started their second congress in control.

This is why it’s traditionally been that second option that Trump presented which has been the focus of political energy: Electing more senators from one’s own party. The Senate churns slowly, which is anathema to Trump. But over the long term, tossing out the filibuster will almost certainly cause his party severe headaches.

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