On first blush, the op-ed piece penned recently by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is rife with irony. In the piece, which appeared in The New York Times under the headline “The Filibuster Plays a Crucial Role,” Republican McConnell argues against calls by Democratic party “activists” to end the Senate’s peculiar filibuster rule, which requires a supermajority of 60 votes to end debate in that chamber on most legislation. His reasoning: The rule “flows from our founding tradition” and is intended to make policy “less likely to seesaw wildly with every election.”
This from the pol who in early 2016 thumbed his nose at longstanding tradition by refusing to allow the Senate to perform its constitutional obligation to consider former president Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. If there were any doubt at the time that his disdain for “founding tradition” was motivated solely by partisanship, it dissipated recently when he said he would not follow his own break from tradition if President Trump were to nominate a Supreme Court justice under similar circumstances.
And yet, like the proverbial stopped clock, McConnell is right this time. Those favoring the elimination of the filibuster rule argue that requiring only a simple majority vote on legislation would make the Senate a more democratic institution. But the Senate is in its very concept quite undemocratic. Each state gets the same number of senators, regardless of population, with the result that Wyoming’s half-million or so residents have the same number of Senate votes as California’s almost 40 million. There’s no doubt our founders intended this when they wrote the Constitution, setting up the Senate as a legislative check on the ability of fewer, but more populous, states to push through legislation in the House regardless of the views of smaller states. And the Senate’s filibuster rule has long enhanced the founders’ goal of promoting compromise and a more deliberative approach to legislating.
Those Democrats advocating for the change may be salivating at the prospect of taking back the Senate in 2020 and not having to contend with a 60-vote requirement to undo what they see as the Trump administration’s excesses. But they should be careful what they wish for. Trump himself has called for ending the filibuster rule because it frustrated Senate action on some more-extreme legislation passed by the House during his first two years in office. Democrats should be as worried about the prospect of a Republican in the White House with Republican control of both chambers, unchecked by the Senate filibuster rule, as Republicans should be of a similar, but Democratic-controlled, scenario.
It’s no secret that the country is deeply divided, and it sorely needs ways to promote discussion, deliberation and compromise. The Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rule, while hardly perfect, is already one such means. Though McConnell lacks any personal credibility in shamelessly invoking “founding traditions,” Democrats and Republicans alike should agree with him that the rule should stay.