Abolish the Filibuster!

If the filibuster can’t be used to defeat a liar and a homophobe like John Ashcroft (whom the Senate just confirmed as the next attorney general), what good is it? This is not, as you might expect, the prelude to a rant against the Democrats for deciding not to filibuster the Ashcroft nomination. (The Democrats ended up with 42 “no” votes–one more than they would have needed to sustain a filibuster against a cloture motion.) Nor is this the prelude to a valentine to the Democrats for successfully demonstrating to Bush that they have sufficient votes to filibuster any wing nuts Bush might nominate to the Supreme Court. Rather, this is the prelude to Chatterbox proposing that the Democrats lead the way in getting rid of the filibuster altogether.

Chatterbox has written before about his wish to get rid of the Senate altogether, on the grounds that it violates the principle of “one man, one vote.” (The same objection can and should be raised against the Electoral College, which Chatterbox also wants to abolish. This might be a good moment, however, to clarify that Chatterbox wants to abolish the Energy Department for entirely unrelated reasons.) Chatterbox realizes that turning the U.S. Congress into a unicameral legislature will require a long twilight struggle. In the meantime, ditching the filibuster, which exaggerates the Senate’s tendency to give legislators representing a small number of people disproportionate power, is a perfectly acceptable interim measure. To paraphrase Senate Democrat Russ Feingold’s explanation for why he voted for Ashcroft, abolishing the filibuster would be an olive branch, not a white flag.

The advantage to Republicans in abolishing the filibuster should be obvious. Since the GOP controls both houses of Congress and the White House, the legislative-minority rights they’d be whittling down belong to Democrats. No filibuster means that Democrats can defeat GOP proposals in the Senate only with GOP defections.

The advantage to Democrats is less obvious, but real. Tactically, the Democrats have about as little need for the filibuster as it’s possible to have, because the Senate is right now divided evenly between the two parties (with Vice President Dick Cheney holding the tie-breaking vote). This reality is less evident now during the Bush honeymoon than it will likely become later on, especially if Bush ends up becoming a polarizing president. (If he doesn’t end up being a polarizing president, there will be even less tactical need for the filibuster.) The true lesson of the Democrats corralling 42 votes against Ashcroft isn’t that they can now filibuster an Ashcroft-like Supreme Court nominee. It’s that, when the stakes are much higher–when they involve a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court–the Democrats will probably be able to block a wing nut by a simple majority vote. If the chips are really down, the Democrats will probably vote en bloc against, and there should be enough moderate Republicans (Lincoln Chafee, if no one else) to finish off the offending nominee.

For Democrats, another tactical consideration is the strong likelihood that the Senate will go Democratic before the 2002 election. (Would you like to bet on Strom Thurmond staying alive two more years?) The advantage to Democrats of having a filibuster-free Senate once they retake the upper chamber requires no explanation.

But wouldn’t abolishing the filibuster go against tradition? Well, yes and no. As this U.S. Senate Web page explains, the filibuster has been around since the beginning. But the trend over the past two centuries has been toward restricting its use. The House allowed filibustering for awhile, but got rid of it as its membership swelled and the need to restrict debate became more urgent. Before 1917, when the Senate first imposed a cloture rule, there was no way to stop a filibuster. (No wonder we had to fight a war to end slavery!) And in 1975, the Senate sensibly reduced the number of votes required to end a filibuster from 67 to 60. The logical next step is to get rid of the filibuster altogether.

Chatterbox tried to sell this idea today to Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, which took the lead in opposing Ashcroft. Neas is a veteran of many congressional civil rights battles, and Chatterbox thought he might be stirred by the idea of taking away the weapon Strom Thurmond used against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. (Thurmond’s ultimately unsuccessful filibuster was the longest in Senate history: He held the Senate floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes.) But Neas wasn’t buying. “Regardless of who’s in charge of the Senate, I would never advocate doing away with the filibuster,” he said. “It’s one of the few checks and balances left in the system.” Neas pointed out that although the filibuster once helped prop up Jim Crow, in recent years it’s been a handy tool to protect existing civil rights statutes. Neas did say he might be willing to entertain the idea of reforming the filibuster by reducing the number of votes needed to impose cloture on the second and third go-round. Sixty votes would still be needed the first time, but after that the cloture majority could maybe drop to 59 or 58. But Chatterbox finds this too small a change to have much likely effect. Let’s bring full-fledged majority rule to the Senate! It would be a welcome first step toward bringing full-fledged majority rule to the United States.