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April 07, 2005

Against the Filibuster (Again)

Mark Schmitt has written an excellent response to my argument for why progressives should welcome the end of the Senate filibuster. While Mark seems to agree that "filibusters will always be more effective as a tool of conservative efforts to cut down activist government than the reverse," he sees the danger of robust majoritarianism are so high that he prefers the security of the minority block embodied by the filibuster. He is also ultimately skeptical that procedural reform ever makes a real difference for progressives in any case.

His fear is that the southern conservatives, who dominated policies in the 1940s and 1950s due to their use of the filibuster and seniority in congressional committees then, are now dominating the GOP caucus and their power, ironically, has only been enhanced by pro-majoritarian Congressional reforms instituted in the last few decades. Ending the filibuster would just enhance their power, which Mark sees as the "unpredictable" results unforseen by liberals who promoted those reforms, who didn't factor in the defection of southern conservatives to the GOP in their calculations.

My response: Let's start with the example Mark gives of the horrors of majoritarianism, namely the budget process which is the one area of legislation currently immune to filibusters. He points out that this allowed the GOP to slash government revenue through tax cuts which creates "the greatest obstacles to activist government" possible.

Two problems with that example. First, the 2001 budget passed with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, so it would have done 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 increased created a robust expansion of government revenues during the 1990s, which would never have happened with a filibuster possible. 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 to ever raise taxes in the face of grandstanding conservative filibusters.

This just reinforces my point that filibusters are inherently more of an obstacle to progressive government than a block to conservative politics.

As for Mark's point that reform politics has unintended consequences, the defection of conservative southern Democrats to the GOP was hardly unexpected. From the day Lyndon Johnson signed the civil rights bills (and even earlier when Truman came out for desegregating the military), that defection was expected.

Even at the height of the Great Society, when post-war progressive power was at its peak, those same southern conservatives were part of a coalition that in 1965 filibustered labor law reform. It made little difference whether they officially carried the Democratic Party label or not, and thirty years late in 1994, those same southern conservatives (now mostly with a GOP label) filibustered labor law reform again.

I highlight this because it illustrates a larger point, which is that the supposed political shift to the right over the last few decades is far less significant than usually credited. The "Democratic Party" dominance of Congress in the postwar period was largely a mirage since it obscured the power Democratic conservatives exercised through coalitions with the GOP and through the filibuster throughout the period.

Progressive policy is actually 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 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.

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 decent 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 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 powerless 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. (The Martinez staff memo didn't help in that regard.)

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

More on the issue from Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum.

Posted by Nathan at April 7, 2005 12:55 PM