Everyone had a good chortle over this. After all, McConnell had basically argued that if we make it easier to legislate in the Senate, he’ll do all he can to make it even harder in other ways, confirming that his North Star is to make legislating as hard as possible … which underscores the case for reforming or ending the filibuster.
But an interesting argument is bouncing around that explains why McConnell might have reacted this way — and why it’s actually a show of weakness and fear on McConnell’s part.
The idea is that McConnell doesn’t want a simple-majority Senate because many things Republicans want to do can’t get 50 GOP votes anyway, because they’re deeply unpopular. Meanwhile, important GOP priorities that can get 50 GOP votes, such as tax cuts, can be passed via the simple-majority reconciliation process: This is how the 2017 tax cut passed.
As Benjy Sarlin put it in a Twitter thread, there aren’t “many GOP priorities that could get 50 votes.” And Sarlin added a nuance: If the filibuster were done away with, and Republicans did take the majority, there would be tremendous pressure from the conservative grass roots to pass unpopular items, something McConnell might prefer to avoid.
I don’t like the policies McConnell described. What I can’t understand is how McConnell is supposed to feel about them. If he truly thinks they’d “strengthen America,” then shouldn’t he want to have the chance to enact them, and then have his party run on the results?
This has created a situation in which McConnell’s threat to pass Republican legislation in a filibuster-free Senate is an empty one. And it isn’t just that those policies might be hard-pressed to command simple majorities.
The threat is empty for another reason: The things Republicans want to pass would be easier to reverse than the things Democrats want to do. In a filibuster-free Senate, if one party does things by simple majority, then power will shift eventually, and the other party can just theoretically undo via simple majority the things that the opposition did while in power. The rub is that this would be harder for Republicans to do than Democrats.
Jason Richwine suggests an interesting reason for this: GOP priorities such as concealed-carry reciprocity and defunding Planned Parenthood are not structural or transformative changes, whereas Democratic priorities such as legalizing millions of immigrants or expanding voting rights do constitute such deep changes.
Indeed, there’s still another reason why it might be harder to reverse Democratic policies than Republican ones: The former are likely to be more popular once enacted. It would be politically harder to reverse the legalization of millions of immigrants or an expansion of voting rights than it would be to reverse concealed-carry or the defunding of Planned Parenthood. (There are exceptions — something like national voter ID, if legally doable, could be popular.)
I think all these are good reasons to entertain a filibuster-free world. If we can pass things by simple majority, and they can be repealed by simple majority by the opposition once it takes power — which would be either easier or harder based on how the public is reacting to those things — that might actually expose senators to more direct public accountability.
We already saw an illustration of this. When Republicans had total control in 2017, they tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act via reconciliation, but failed, because they couldn’t even get 50 votes amid a national outcry. Repeal turned out to be deeply unpopular.
All of this reveals another deep asymmetry between the two parties. Republicans probably have more to fear from ending the filibuster because the changes they’d pursue would be more easily reversed, as their core priorities are just less popular. Meanwhile, if some of the leading Democratic priorities being entertained right now do pass, the public is more likely to want to keep them.