Three times last week, on three consecutive days, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought up legislation that funded DHS while blocking President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration. The apparent goal was to show hard-line conservatives that Democrats were never going to allow the bill to pass. Why did it take three votes to demonstrate that? Who knows. But Senate Democrats stuck together and proved McConnell’s point, filibustering it every time.
In a reversal of roles, Republicans now are accusing Democrats of obstruction. But unlike McConnell and his GOP colleagues, Senate Democrats have come up with a defense for that obstruction, sort of. “We don’t see ourselves as filibustering,” Senator Barbara Mikulski, who voted to filibuster the DHS funding all three times last week, told Politico. “We’re not just stopping things to stop it. We feel that we’re actually be [sic] constructive.”
Oh come on. This is a filibuster, plain and simple. Democrats may feel it’s constructive because they’re blocking legislation that they oppose. But Republicans could have said the exact same thing for the past six years. Did Democrats think that the GOP was “not just stopping things to stop it” then? Of course not. So enough with the hypocrisy.
When Republicans walloped the Democrats in the midterm elections, I argued that Democrats should immediately adopt the GOP’s nihilistic tactics and frequently use the filibuster in the 114th Congress. Republicans received a political advantage from blocking legislation during the first six years of Obama’s presidency, so Democrats shouldn’t unilaterally disarm. And that’s exactly what they’ve done (thanks for reading!). Since the new Congress began a month ago, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has kept his caucus unified in filibustering legislation on the Keystone pipeline until they received more amendment votes, for instance, as well as the three DHS bills. Expect plenty more filibusters over the next two years.
Instead of trying to pretend that they aren’t filibustering, Democrats should instead make the case for eliminating the filibuster—now that Republicans can see how destructive it can be. In fact, President Obama argued for eliminating the filibuster in an interview with Vox published Monday morning. “The filibuster in this modern age probably just torques it too far in the direction of a majority party not being able to govern effectively and move forward its platform,” he said. “And I think that's an area where we can make some improvement.” That’s what Democrats should be saying.
Republicans will likely reject that argument. But if Democrats retake the Senate in 2016, they could change the rules to eliminate the filibuster, without any Republican support. Once again, McConnell and his cohort would surely cry foul. But at least Democrats could turn around and say that they would’ve agreed to the changes even if they were in the minority.
That won’t clear up gridlock, of course. Republicans will likely control the House for the considerable future, and Democrats have a good chance of holding either the Senate or presidency after 2016 (or both). But that doesn’t mean we have to keep an anti-majoritarian rule that creates even more gridlock. Mikulski and her Democratic colleagues shouldn’t be afraid to say that.