Empowering the Majority: The Legacy of Filibuster Reform
Last week Senate Democrats finally changed the rules of the Senate, abolishing the 60-vote rule for all presidential nominations except for Supreme Court nominees. It was welcome news for those who’ve been following the issue closely and care about making our political system work.
In the past few years, Republican obstruction reached unprecedented levels in the Senate, to the point that Republicans were actually nullifying election outcomes and blocking federal agencies from lawfully doing their jobs. This situation was untenable. Even ideological conventionalists like Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy, who revere Senate tradition, were forced to concede the necessity of rules reform — and voted accordingly.
At least since the 2008 election, Republicans have been pursuing a strategy designed to keep the emerging (and growing) Democratic majority in the electorate from making a difference and wielding power in office. Rules reform in the Senate suggests that Democrats may finally be wising up to this strategy and are deciding to fight back.
As we have argued before, Republicans are trapped in an ideological, generational, and demographic double bind, and in response they are deliberately subverting our nation’s democratic processes in order to cling to power and resist change.
Facing political marginalization resulting from long-term generational and demographic change, the right is responding by rigging the rules and abusing the norms of our political system to stay in power. The deeper the GOP’s demographic deficit grows, the more destructive their behavior becomes. Consider:
- The court’s wholesale destruction of equitable campaign finance laws and key minority voting protections;
- The widespread attacks on labor unions, women’s groups, and low-income voter registration organizations that mobilize traditionally Democratic voters;
- The restrictions of voting rights and ballot access, voter roll purges, and other efforts to disenfranchise traditionally Democratic voters;
- The unprecedented abuse of political processes such executive branch nominations, redistricting, and the Senate filibuster;
- The suspension of representative government and normal legislative procedures when they stand in the way of Republican goals;
- The frequent fiscal and budgetary hostage taking — often accompanied by threats to wreck the economy — if Democrats to not accede to Republican demands;
- The sometimes veiled, sometimes overt threats to rig the electoral college, nullify laws that conservatives oppose, and secede from the union.
To Democrats, liberals, and even many moderates, these actions appear reckless and extreme. But in fact they are rational, strategically sound responses the GOP’s looming demographic marginalization. Republicans know they can’t stop the demographic changes that are coming, but they can keep those changes from mattering…from having any meaningful consequences.
Until generational change allows them more room to maneuver, Republicans will continue to pursue this anti-democratic strategy anywhere Democrats are either too weak or too oblivious to fight back.
Thankfully Democrats ARE beginning to fight back, but they never should have permitted Republican abuse of the rules to carry on this long. Democrats could have changed the rules of the Senate years ago with hardly any risk to themselves or their majority. After all, American voters have never shown any interest in the arcana of parliamentary procedure.
How many good judges and executive branch appointments were delayed or denied thanks to the cowardice of traditionalists in the Senate? No doubt some enterprising publication will eventually calculate the number of public servants lost. But the opportunity cost to regular Americans — the difference these nominees could have made had their nominations sailed through the Senate — is incalculable.
Even at this very late date, filibuster reform is a massive victory for Democrats. It is a clear example of Silents and Boomers in the Senate accepting responsibility for national leadership, doing what it takes to make Washington work, and aggressively wielding power for the greater good — something we recently urged them do.
However, until Democrats regain control of the House or the Republican-controlled House becomes willing to vote for reasonable deals with Democrats in the Senate, it makes little sense to do away with the legislative filibuster. After all, even the most popular legislation passed by a Democratic Senate will just be dead on arrival in the House. The next time Democrats win control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, doing away with the legislative filibuster should be the first order of business in the Senate.
When the time comes, we’ll post messaging recommendations and talking points — based on our original insights from political psychology — to help you make it happen.