Harry Reid: It’s Time to Nuke the Filibuster!

It's a tool of obstruction and gridlock — and the Founding Fathers would've hated it. Why it's time to end the filibuster.

Oh, dear lord: We’re never going to get rid of the filibuster, are we?

For a couple of hours there this week, it looked like we might get that infernal tool that lets, well, the Senate’s infernal tools keep the business of the people from being done. But — as happened before — a small group of senators struck a deal to let a little bit of business get done, in exchange for ensuring that nothing whatsover limit their ability to keep Congress in gridlock.

“It is a compromise, and I think we get what we want, they get what they want,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. “Not a bad deal.”

Actually, it’s probably not that great. Because it means that keeping stuff from getting done was a more important principle to powerful senators than getting stuff done. And that means a determined few senators will continue to thwart the majority of the Senate — and, often, the will of the American people — just for kicks. Crucially, given our national love of America’s origins, it’s a tool the Founding Fathers would’ve hated.

So it’s time Reid and Democrats stop threatening to use the “nuclear option” and actually blow up the filibuster, once and for all.

First, a quick review of what a filibuster actually is: It’s a parliamentary tool whereby 41 members of the 100-member Senate can say they don’t want a bill—or a nomination, or a treaty—to come to vote, so it doesn’t. In the old days, senators actually stood on the chamber floor and kept talking to keep the filibuster going unless 60 or more votes could be found to break it. (The numbers have changed over the years.) These days, a senator pretty much only has to say filibuster,” and the legislation is blocked. In a closely divided Senate, getting those votes isn’t an easy task.

While both sides have used and abused the tool forever—Southern Democrats delayed civil rights legislation for decades, despite the rest of the country’s wishes—Republicans have recently taken the tool to new extremes, invoking filibusters at a record-setting pace to keep President Obama from governing, denying votes to let him fill cabinet agencies with his own appointees and (perhaps more crucially for the long-term) the judiciary with Democratic judges. It’s gone from being an occasional tool to one that lets the minority party dictate the agenda.

And that’s not how our Republic is supposed to work.

Need proof? Just check out the Federalist Papers, where the Constitution’s authors made their intentions most clearly known. They never discuss the filibuster by name in the papers, because the tool was never written into the Constitution—the Senate later adopted it as part of the chamber’s rules. But the founders warned, clearly and repeatedly, against letting minority factions obstruct the work of the majority.

In Federalist 22, for example, Alexander Hamilton railed against the notion that the Constitution should require the approval of two-thirds of the states to approve a bill. Note that that two-thirds ratio is very close to what is needed to overcome a filibuster these days.

“Two-thirds of the people of America could not long be persuaded … to submit their interests to the management and disposal of one third,” he railed, later adding that a two-thirds requirement aims “to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.”

Wade through the verbiage, and you’’ll probably agree that’s exactly what is happening.

Similarly, in Federalist 58, James Madison warned against a requirement that would let members of Congress block legislation simply by not showing up at voting sessions and denying the legislature a quorum. (Note: I’ve been making this argument for a few years now.)

“In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed,” Maidson warned. “It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority.”

And yes, he meant that was a bad thing.

Defenders of the filibuster suggest it’s keeps the minority of Americans from being run roughshod by the majority. But the truth is, there are plenty of veto points in the process already: Legislation must be passed by both houses of Congress, generally, or it fails. Then it must be signed by the president (again, generally) or it fails. And even then, the courts can come along and strike down a bill if it’s unconsititutional. The filibuster is one choke point too many.

And despite what conservatives will generally tell you, the Founders wanted energetic government. It’s the reason they adopted the Constitution instead of sticking with the old, sclerotic Articles of Confederation that kept the national government from doing much of anything at all. Destroying the filibuster, then, is more than good governance—it’s a restoration of the governing traditions that were established more than 200 years ago.

“We forget,” Hamilton wrote, “how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary.” That’s exactly the problem with today’s Senate. It’s time to nuke the filibuster.