I’m all for it. Given the recent polarization of the two parties, coherent policy can now only be made during rare moments of overwhelming control by one party. The rest of the time, policy either gets made by inertia (the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on the highest earners) or else you have to go through agonies to get the modest cuts of the sequester even as our unreformed entitlements get closer and closer to swamping us. The filibuster might make sense given a different political culture. It doesn’t make sense given the political culture we actually have right this second.
What surprises me is how stupid the Senate Democrats were in their timing of the destruction of the filibuster. Their move keeps the filibuster in place for legislation and Supreme Court nominations, but now there is no way that the Republicans will retain the filibuster if they should regain power in the Senate. The Democrats have killed the filibuster and for what? Obama is in his second term and the House of Representatives is controlled by the other party. If they were going to kill the filibuster, they should have done it in 2009-2010 and forced through single-payer or an expansion of Medicare for people in their fifties.
I hope they enjoy their nominees to the DC appeals court, because Democrats also hurt themselves in the politics of Supreme Court nominations. As Jan Crawford Greenburg pointed out, the contemporary politics of Supreme Court nominations is asymmetrical. Democratic nominees sail through. All a Democratic Supreme Court nominee has to say is something along the lines of:
Yes, yes, I promise to interpret the Constitution and not the latest pronouncements of the New York Times editorial board. [Snicker, snicker.] If you like your Constitution, you can keep it. Period. Suckers. Oh, I’m sorry. Was the last part out loud? Sorry.
A Republican Supreme Court nomination has (since Bork) been a dramatic event. Prior to today, a Republican president had to win the public relations battle over his Supreme Court nomination very decisively in order to hold together virtually the entire Republican Senate caucus and intimidate enough vulnerable-feeling Democrats to vote for the Republican nominee. Reid and friends just made it so that the next Republican president has to win over the fiftieth most conservative Senator to get a nominee confirmed instead of the sixtieth most conservative Senator. Reid also changed the intra-Republican politics of Supreme Court nominations. Republican presidents have to (as much as possible) satisfy their base without losing a confirmation fight. Sometimes there is no conflict between these two priorities. Samuel Alito was easier to confirm than Harriet Miers despite Alito seeming to be to the “right” of Miers. But sometimes the two considerations are going to seem in tension. By lowering the numerical threshold for confirmation, Reid just made it more likely that a Republican president will choose to pick a fight with the Democrats rather than anger his own base by picking a “moderate” or someone of unknown views.
One counterargument you hear on the left is that the Republicans would have done away with the filibuster anyway if they ever regained control of the presidency and both houses of Congress. I’m not at all sure. To do away with the filibuster, Republicans wouldn’t just need the support of Republicans senators like Susan Collins and Mark Kirk who come from Democrat-leaning states plus a hack pol like Lisa Murkowski who owes nothing to the Republican conservative base. That would be hard enough, but Republicans would also need to get the votes of Senate old bulls like Richard Shelby and Orrin Hatch who score as orthodox conservative but probably don’t want to be known as the guys who destroyed the filibuster. It would have taken a desperate effort for conservative activists to get the old bulls to support destroying the filibuster. Would such an effort have succeeded? I don’t know, but I don’t think the chances were better than 50/50. Today’s action won that fight for conservative activists.
The subtext of all of this is that Democrats don’t think that Republicans have a chance to win the presidency and control of both houses of Congress and so Democrats don’t have to worry about majoritarian payback. That doesn’t make this move any smarter. If Democrats keep winning elections they will get their policies through and they will, through attrition, get a coherent and aggressively liberal Supreme Court majority. Democrats could have maximized the benefit from destroying the filibuster by choosing a moment when it would have allowed them to pass important elements of their legislative agenda, but they didn’t do that either. They just made it so that the next time they lose power, their opponents will have an easier time.