The U.S. Senate finally took action today to diminish the effects of political polarization. It was pretty much a party-line vote.
With 50 Democrats (and two independents) voting in favor and all 45 Republicans (and three Democrats) opposed, the Senate opted to eliminate the filibuster for executive appointments and most judicial nominations. It’s a sensible change, as far as it goes. The question is: How far will it go? The filibuster remains available for legislation and Supreme Court nominees. But it’s questionable how long even that tradition can last.
The filibuster, intended as a protection of minority rights, has become instead a tool to obstruct majority rule. Reasonable minds -- some of them even in the Senate -- can disagree about where protection stops and obstruction begins. But there can be little doubt about what happened in recent weeks, when Republicans used it to prevent three qualified nominees from taking the bench in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Republicans complained that President Barack Obama’s appointments would shift the ideology on the court. Well, yes, that’s one of his prerogatives, isn’t it?
The filibuster is a world-class source of frustration. Its most famous service was in the cause of delaying civil rights to American blacks. Yet the filibuster is also emblematic of a Senate culture that, by design and evolution, has afforded the minority party far more power than it is permitted in the House of Representatives.
The loss of the filibuster on nominations takes the Senate one giant step closer to the kind of one-party dominance that characterizes the House. The fear is that it will also inspire similar levels of ruthless partisanship.
It could easily get worse. The next time a single party controls both houses of Congress, the temptation to eliminate the filibuster on legislation will be immense -- either as partisan payback from frustrated Republicans or as the culmination of (again, frustrated) majority rule by Democrats.
At the same time, it’s just possible that the filibuster isn’t as important as Republicans -- or Democrats -- say it is. The Senate’s problems flow from the decline of bipartisan norms that enabled members of opposing parties to work together for the common good; overuse of the filibuster was more a symptom of this disease than a cause. Deprived of its favored parliamentary tactic, the minority may find it in its interest to work more closely with the majority.
“A deliberate and determined effort to obstruct everything, no matter what the merits, just to refight the results of an election is not normal,” Obama said after the vote, “and for the sake of future generations, it cannot become normal.”
Now that he has engaged the so-called nuclear option and decisively undercut the minority party’s power, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should make every effort to limit the fallout -- and seek a new normal. How? One way is by seriously consulting Senate Republicans at every opportunity.
The march to hyperpartisanship didn’t begin this week. And as today’s vote illustrates, it won’t end anytime soon: The toxins unleashed by mindless filibustering will, paradoxically, be strengthened by the filibuster’s demise. But anyone who cares about the American model of constitutional democracy should be working to reduce polarization. Reid can do more than most. Showing respect for his political opponents in defeat is a starting point.
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