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What Mitch McConnell's Opposition to the Filibuster Is Really About

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | August 22, 2019 |

By Dustin Rowles | Politics | August 22, 2019 |


In an op-ed on the NYTimes this morning, Mitch McConnell wrote a defense of the filibuster, something that both Donald Trump and a number of Democratic Presidential candidates have called for being abandoned.

Yes, the Senate’s design makes it difficult for one party to enact sweeping legislation on its own. Yes, the filibuster makes policy less likely to seesaw wildly with every election. These are features, not bugs. Our country doesn’t need a second House of Representatives with fewer members and longer terms. America needs the Senate to be the Senate.

In the piece, McConnell also noted — fairly or unfairly — that when Democrats gave up the filibuster on federal judges, McConnell and the Republicans took it to its logical conclusion by blocking the nomination of Merrick Garland, and that doing so ultimately cost the Democrats dearly. The Republicans were able to push through Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on simple 50/50 votes, in addition to 43 federal judges.

McConnell is not wrong about that. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that it was a mistake to lift the filibuster on judges, because it’s allowed one party to install overly conservative and sometimes downright unqualified judges to lifetime appointments on the federal bench, something that McConnell seems to note with almost spiteful glee.

But what about legislation? Many Democratic candidates want to drop it because they believe they’ll be able to more easily implement their policies should the Democrats retake the Senate and hold the House. Personally, I’m skeptical of the Democrats’ ability to retake the Senate, even if they win the Presidency and hold the House, because the Senate — like the Electoral College — is stacked against the Democrats because two old white dudes in Wyoming — which has a population of 577,000 — have as much power as two Senators from California, who represent 40 million people. There are more people in blue states, but there are more red states in America, and unless and until we change the way the Senate works, Republicans are probably going to have a huge advantage for years to come. By 2040, two-thirds of the American population (largely in blue states) will be represented by only 30 percent of the Senate. That is a glum, terrifying fact.

And yet, it is for that very reason that I oppose the filibuster on legislation. The Democrats can hold the House — and may be able to hold on long-term, given the way that Trump has destroyed the Republican party — and they may be able to take the White House. However, even if they could retake the Senate, they’re never going to get 60 votes when 8-14 of them have to come from places like Arkansas and Alabama. Like, seriously: Never. As the Senate is currently composed, the Democrats may never have 60 Senators again. The filibuster thus ensures that no Democratic President will ever be able to pass sweeping legislation again.

However, even if they don’t retake the Senate and end up with, say, a 48-52 minority, there are still a number of issues — guns, healthcare, abortion — where Democrats can peel of 2-3 Republicans in order to pass legislation. Long-term population trends likely favor Democrats in the House, while long-term systemic trends favor Republicans in the Senate. If anything is ever going to get done again — on either side of the aisle — the filibuster is going to have to go. We live in a divided country, and getting 60 Senators to agree on almost anything is next to impossible. The end result, as we have seen since 2016, is a President like Trump who rules by executive order. Indeed, the ineffectiveness and gridlock in the Senate has only led to more power in the executive, and that’s not good for either party or the country.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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