Harry Reid's Triumph

At least when it comes to executive branch and (most) judicial branch appointments, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, democracy is coming to the United States Senate. Senate Democrats responded to the Republican minority's blockade against any Obama appointments to the D.C. Circuit by eliminating the filibuster for most presidential nominations. This vote will likely be the most important congressional vote of President Obama's second term, and Senate Majority Harry Reid and most of the rest of the Democratic caucus deserve immense credit for pulling it off.

I have explained at length why I believe that the filibuster is an indefensible practice. The short version is that the American political system already has an inordinately high number of veto points, so anyone favoring additional extraconstitutional ones should face a very high burden of proof. The filibuster, with its long and dismal history of allowing overrepresented minorities to prevent Congress from addressing the interests of underrepresented ones, doesn't even come close.

Another way of knowing that Senate Dems did the right thing is to consider the emptiness of the threats being made in the wake of the filibuster's demise. Several opponents of abortion rights are crowing that this will allow Republicans to appoint anti-Roe justices to the Supreme Court. (Technically, the filibuster changes don't affect the Supreme Court, but it's clear that the deal will doom Supreme Court filibusters as well.) The rather obvious rejoinder to this is that Republican presidents will nominate anti-Roe justices no matter what, and it would be neither realistic nor desirable for a Democratic minority in the Senate to serially filibuster Republican Supreme Court nominees. The Senate did save Roe by stopping Robert Bork, but this was done with a straight up-or-down vote, not a filibuster. It's worth noting that with the filibuster in place, George W. Bush got two of the most reactionary nominees of the last 70 years confirmed to the Supreme Court. How much worse can the Republican nominees get than Sam Alito? Ted Cruz? Zombie Roger Taney?

The only decent argument against the rule change is that it should have been done at the beginning of the session rather than through the "nuclear option." But it's pretty hard for Republicans to invoke norms of behavior and bipartisan comity at this late date. Under McConnell's leadership the Republican minority has thrown away historical norms about the use of the filibuster. They can't have it both ways. And as the Prospect's Paul Waldman explains, one would have to be remarkably naive to think that Republicans wouldn't have done exactly the same thing if they were in the same position.

The real question is why Senate Republicans made such an obvious strategic blunder. The filibuster in general is more beneficial to Republican interests than Democratic ones, and it seems likely that Republicans could have stopped reluctant Democrats from detonating the nuclear option by letting one or two D.C. Circuit nominees get a vote earlier in the process. Why did they allow this to happen? I can think of three possible explanations:

Short-term thinking

Focusing on potential primarily challengers and unable to think strategically past their immediate goals, Senate Republicans didn't stop to consider that eliminating the filibuster (potentially for everything) would hurt their long-term interests. If this was true, they got routed both in the short- and long-term, and the behavior of the Republican conference was essentially irrational.

Misunderestimating Harry Reid

Senate Republicans—like many liberals—may have assumed that Reid's threats were empty. But Reid is sometimes mistaken for a weak leader precisely because like all competent political leaders he doesn't make broad threats he doesn't have the votes to back up. When he does make threats the underrated, very savvy Reid is likely to have the support to back it up. If they didn't grasp this, Republicans found out the hard way.


Some Senate Republicans may have convinced themselves that liberals will be more ruthless in their use the filibuster than conservatives. That is quite clearly false. The filibuster has almost always favored opponents of social reform, and since progressives generally want to do things and conservatives generally want to stop things this will almost certainly be true going forward. But never underestimate someone's ability to stop believing their own guff.

Whatever caused the Republicans to escalate Senate dysfunction enough to push Democrats over the edge, the reform of the filibuster is a great thing. Yes, it will allow Republican presidents to get a larger number of terrible judges confirmed too. But that's democracy—people who win elections should be able to govern. Democrats should be confident about their ability, over time, to triumph at the ballot box.

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