Friday, April 7, 2017

Senate filibuster dead and buried

The filibuster is dead. Long live majority rule.

Senate Republican leaders tripped the switch Thursday after Democrats vowed to filibuster the confirmation of Neill Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and executed the rule that a super-majority will be required to end debate on the Senate floor.

The filibuster had been rarely used in Supreme Court nominations, but these are rare times, and Democrats had enough votes to stop the nomination with more than 40 votes pledged to force the traditional, 60-vote super-majority to end debate over the nomination. Frustrated by this barricade, Republicans vowed to destroy one of the most hallowed traditions of the Senate, the liberty to continue debate indefinitely so long as a substantial minority of senators allowed such a delay.

Republicans had a nominee in Gorsuch who was as moderate as any Republican nominee could be expected to be. He was well qualified and well respected. In an ideal world, judges like Gorsuch would be confirmed with minimal debate. But this is not an ideal world, and Democrats were united to fight the nomination. Republicans vowed to do anything to get Gorsuch seated on the Supreme Court, even if it meant tearing apart the Senate.

Democrats had some righteous indignation on their side. President Obama nominated a well-respected jurist, Merrick Garland, to replace Antonin Scalia a year ago. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider the nomination, contending that the voters in the 2016 election should decide — a unique piece of illogical reasoning in the annals of American politics. Democrats argued that Republicans' refusal to even discuss Garland's nomination was even worse than a filibuster.

Democrats' record in defense of the filibuster has not been pristine. When Obama's federal court nominees languished for months because Republicans filibustered their nominations, Democratic leader Harry Reid pushed through a rule change that eliminated the filibuster in federal judgeships not including the Supreme Court.

Now the filibuster is gone, and no one knows what its demise might mean in the Senate. The hyper-partisanship in Congress can hardly get any worse, and the 60-vote cloture requirement seems quaint in an era of non-stop debate and non-stop campaigning outside the halls of Congress. The death of the filibuster might mean little in the long run. Filibusters have not been what they originally were for years now. Rarely has a senator talked non-stop for days to block legislation as was done in the first 150 years of the Senate. For years now, only the threat of a filibuster was enough to stop legislation. We had filibuster-lite, a watered down, painless blocking movement.

What is being lost, and has been lost for years, is the sense of camaraderie, of principle above party, of public interest over partisan interest. The dead filibuster is just one more symptom of the disease.

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