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Hoping for a Mushroom Cloud: We Should Welcome End of the Filibuster
Progressive Populist
by Nathan Newman
May 15, 2005

Eliminating the filibuster of Democrats against judicial nominations has been deemed the "nuclear option" by GOP leaders. Here's hoping for an atomic meltdown.

There is something inherently repellent about progressives rising to the defense of the filibuster, the tool of racists and segregationists for a century. But even at the pragmatic level, the short-term fear of bad GOP judicial nominations ignores the longer-term losses progressives have suffered from the existence of the filibuster, which some conservative groups opposing the end of the filibuster understand.

Conservatives Against the Filibuster

A coalition of conservative groups, including the anti-union National Right to Work Committee, the Gun Owners of America and the anti-abortion National Pro-Life Alliance, have broken ranks to oppose ending the filibuster. They emphasize that conservative groups have relied on the filibuster to stop progressive legislation over the years. "Please do not tamper with freedom-loving Americans' Senate filibuster tool, which has served them well many times in the past," wrote Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, in an open letter to Senate Majority Leader Frist.

And conservatives are right to treasure the filibuster. Without the threat of the filibuster, we would have passed national health care in 1994 -- and a host of other progressive legislation over the years.

The opposition of the anti-union Right to Work Committee is instructive. Repeatedly since the 1960s, major labor law reform has had majority support in both houses of Congress and a president willing to sign a bill to protect labor rights, yet opponents were able to block the bill from being passed into law.

Eliminating the filibuster -- and ending it for judicial nominations will lead quickly to its end in other areas -- would of course open things up to worse rightwing laws that liberals could have blocked.

How Filibuster Hurts Progressives:

But the reality is that conservatives have thrived in a political environment where they can block any positive use of government. By frustrating progressive policy, it feeds the argument that ineffective government does not deserve the taxes working families pay. That was the explicit argument of conservatives who blocked health care reform in 1994; they knew that national health care would be so popular that it would lock in support for positive government action for decades more.

The reverse doesn't work for liberals. Blocking conservative action through filibusters has short-term gains, but it feeds the long-term cynicism of voters that government cannot accomplish anything. Which just adds to the meta-argument of conservatives of the dysfunctionality of government and the superiority of leaving decisions to the marketplace.

Look at the budget process, the one area of legislation which is currently immune to filibusters. The 2001 tax cuts passed with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, so the filibuster would have done progressives little good. Tax cuts are the most popular part of the GOP agenda -- the candy that greases the rest of their policies -- so that is the least likely place for a filibuster to help progressives.

Conversely, the only reason progressives were able to clean up the deficits of the Reagan era was because the GOP could not filibuster Clinton's 1993 tax increases (which not a single Republican voted for). Those tax increases created a robust expansion of government revenues during the 1990s, which would never have happened if a filibuster had been allowed for budget bills. Tax cuts will always be more popular than tax increases, so thank the stars that we don't have a filibuster on the budget, or else we would have a continual ratcheting down of federal revenue with little ability ever to raise taxes in the face of grandstanding conservative filibusters.

The reality is that progressive policy is quite popular -- witness Bush's embrace of creating a Medicare drug benefit and the abject failure of his drive to privatize Social Security. Unfortunately, the only way to achieve passage of that Medicare drug benefit was under a Republican president, since the GOP would have filibustered any attempt with the Democrats in charge -- as they did against Clinton's health care plan in 1994.

So the filibuster allows conservatives to block any decent policy proposed by progressive leaders, then when those conservatives are in office, they pass watered down versions of policies they know are inevitable, then take political credit for them.

The Filibuster and Unaccountable Government

This is the broader political problem of the filibuster, which is that it creates continually divided and thus unaccountable government. And unaccountable government is used by conservatives to block policy under Democratic-dominated governments, grab credit for half-ass measures when they are in office, then play faux populist games to run against a government conservatives may ultimately control.

Yes, the absence of the filibuster might allow the GOP to pass some noxious laws that would have been filibustered by Democrats. But if the GOP actually had a free hand to vote their whole agenda, their coalition would blow up. In fact, the GOP leadership depends on the filibuster and the courts to block their cultural agenda, a point that Thomas Frank outlined in his book, What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, since conservative leaders depend on manipulating a sense of cultural powerlessness by supporters to keep them on the political reservation.

The Terri Schiavo vote is a taste of what would happen if the GOP had to vote its whole agenda, and couldn't depend on Democrats to take the heat for filibustering the cultural extremism. With the Dems stepping back, no one questioned that with this vote, the GOP had full control of the agenda, yet the bill they crafted was interventionist enough to outrage their moderate soccer mom base but weak enough to leave the religious base with the feeling that they were being used politically when Schiavo died.

Here's my bottom line view. I don't think conservatives have majority support for their policies and in a fair and democratic fight, progressives would win most policy fights and win elections. The conservative coalition is cobbled together through rhetorical manipulation that depends on undemocratic structures such as the filibuster and the courts to obscure political accountability.

Abolish the filibuster and force the GOP to be accountable not just for the political candy of tax cuts but for their whole agenda, and we will see a blowup in the GOP coalition and a shift in power to progressives. And when progressives regain the majority, they will actually have the ability to advance serious social change, rather than be blocked at every turn by GOP filibusters.

So here's hoping for the GOP to hit the nuclear button.

Nathan Newman is director of Agenda for Justice, an organization dedicated to supporting policy campaigns by progressives across the country. Email or see

Posted by Nathan at May 15, 2005 10:08 PM