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April 12, 2005

Does the Filibuster Protect Progressive Laws?

As a populist democratic (small d), I hate the filibuster and unelected judges on principle and have implicit faith in majority rule -- as bumpy a political ride as that implies.

That said, supposed pragmatists in the blogosphere chide me for not recognizing that rightwingers could wipe out progressives laws. DhinMI at The Next Hurrah brings up labor law reform and argues that IF the Democratic Party had not been divided by regionalism back in 1947, the anti-union Taft-Hartley bill could have been filibustered. That's big if, given that the anti-union bill was vetoed by Truman, yet 106 Democrats in the House voted to join the GOP to override the veto, and in the Senate, 20 Democrats voted to override. So it's a big IF to ignore the role of southern conservatives in the Democrats back then.

DhinMI argues that the 1994 filibuster of labor law looks more like the "Congress in 1948 than to either the current Congress or a Democratically controlled House and Senate in 2007." It's precisely because 1994 is so radically different from 1947 that I begrudge the filibuster. A majority of Democrats voted against union rights back in 1947, yet 51 Democrats voted for union rights in 1994, with only five Democrats defecting to the anti-union side in 1994. Because the Democratic party -- as a whole -- is far more liberal and pro-union than it was back then, it is far more frustrating that the filibuster has locked in the anti-union politics of 1947 for the foreseeable future.

Mark Schmitt wants to argue that conservative "initiatives...have significant long-term consequences and for either practical or political reasons cannot be undone by a future majority," so a filibuster is vital to block them. But his examples -- drilling in ANWR, repealing the estate tax, etc. -- are odd since they are readily reversed. Any company drilling in ANWR better realize that a future Congress could easily regulate the hell out of their actions so as to shut down drilling, while the estate tax could be restored by a simple majority vote. Even if the rightwing voted to allow the wealthy to put all their income into permanent tax-free accounts, that law could be repealed and the income taxed. A past Congress can restrict the power of a future Congress only in very limited ways.

What is remarkable, on the other hand, is that conservatives have the ability to eliminate much of the welfare state on a majority vote through the budget process, yet are afraid to do so for fear of the political backlash. Progressive government is protected by popular support, not the filibuster.

Conservative opposition to new legislation, though, depends utterly on the filibuster. Precisely because, say, national health care would be popular and almost impossible to repeal once enacted, even with no filibuster -- as many conservatives acknowledge -- progressives wouldn't need the filibuster to protect it, yet conservatives depend on the filibuster to prevent national health care from being enacted.

Posted by Nathan at April 12, 2005 08:56 AM