The Washington Post has an article today about Democratic efforts to repeal the filibuster. The article is evidence of how far reformers have to go to make headway against elite opinion.
The main theme of the article is that majority parties regularly threaten to abolish the filibuster, but later come to their senses when they find themselves in the minority:
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) chuckled as he recently reflected on his effort, five years ago, to change nearly century-old filibuster rules.
"God, that was a dumb idea," McConnell said.
Back in 2005, McConnell had "majority" in his leadership title, and Republicans -- confident about their majority status -- pushed unsuccessfully to obliterate filibusters of judicial nominees. Now the shoe is on the other foot.
First of all, the filibuster rules are not a "century old." The rules have changed over time, and more importantly, so has the practice. The imposition of a routine supermajority requirement is new, as is the practice of massive blocking of low-level presidential appointments. When Medicare was first debated, the Democrats did not face a supermajority requirement.
Second, there is an important difference between what the Republicans were attempting in 2005 and what some Democrats would like to see now. Republicans wanted to abolish the filibuster only for judicial nominations. But judicial nominations are the one aspect of policy where a filibuster can be justified. The rationale for majority rule is that the majority party should have a chance to enact its program, if it can win the support of a majority in two chambers plus the president. If that agenda proves unpopular, the public can vote out the Congress and president and overturn that agenda, also by majority vote. Judicial nominees, by contrast, have lifetime appointments, so some protection against irresponsible majorities is justifiable. (I'm perfectly happy to just have a clean abolition of the filibuster, but keeping it for everything but judicial nominations is the worst possible policy.)
Third, the article treats Senate reform as a purely partisan exercise, as if there were no good government rationale for it. This premise comes through most clearly in this passage:
Now many Democrats are hoping that if health-care reform dies in a messy filibuster, there will be a groundswell of support for rules changes. But this comes as independent handicappers predict Democrats could suffer net losses of four to seven seats in the November midterm elections. In 2012 and 2014, Democrats have to defend twice as many seats as Republicans, making it possible any abolition of the filibuster in the year ahead could hand over a majority-wins-all power to the GOP in a couple years.
In fact, many of the liberals who oppose the filibuster also opposed it when Republicans had the majority. Here's a 2005 column by Jonathan Cohn carefully arguing why liberals were mistaken to defend the sanctity of the filibuster. And here's a 2005 column by me ridiculing the hypocrisy of those same liberals who were defending the filibuster.
The possibility that Republicans may gain control of the Senate isn't the main impediment to reforming the filibuster. It's the best chance. Right now, Republicans are defending the filibuster, or more frequently simply ignoring any principled arguments against it. But they have no chance to implement anything resembling a coherent agenda in a world where everything can be stopped with 60 votes. In fact, if Democrats follow the Republican practice of wantonly obstructing even uncontroversial bills and appointments merely to throw sand into the machinery of governing -- and I hope they will -- Republicans may come to see the virtues of a reformed system.
The fairest way to abolish the filibuster is to set the abolition for some point in the future -- at least four years, and perhaps eight, so that neither side can be sure which party will benefit. A system where one Senator can put a halt to scores of presidential appointments is not a rational way to advance the public interest.