In Our View: Fiddling with Filibuster

Senate Democrats' rule change a nod to today's politics, and one they may regret

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The decision by Harry Reid and Senate Democrats to alter filibuster rules not only serves as a precarious experiment, but as a nod to modern politics.

Last week, Reid, D-Nevada, the Senate majority leader, transformed long-held tradition by eliminating the filibuster for federal judicial nominees and executive-office appointments. The filibuster still will be in play for Supreme Court nominees and for legislation — at least for now.

Now, all of this might sound like inside baseball — political minutiae that in the end has little impact on Joe and Jane Sixpack. And it is, in a way. The filibuster option has provided the minority party with the ability to block nominees or legislation, provided that party has at least 41 votes in the Senate. The practical result long has been to lend a bit of decorum to the U.S. Senate, to ensure that minority opinions are considered rather than the majority-rule raucousness that can be found in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As one senator said in 2005, when changes to the filibuster were previously discussed, "What I worry about would be you essentially have still two chambers — the House and the Senate — but you have simply majoritarian absolute power on either side, and that's just not what the founders intended."

That senator? Barack Obama. Yet Obama's misgivings from years past weren't enough to temper the frustration of current Democrats in the Senate, who were seeking a way around what they view as Republican obstructionism. Changing filibuster rules is a tactic once dubbed "The Nuclear Option" by then-Sen. Trent Lott, and last week Lott said, "If you change the unique precedent and rules, you don't have a Senate anymore."

That remains to be seen. But there's no doubt that changing the filibuster rules is a big deal to political wonks. For the sky-is-falling crowd, it means that Obama could nominate, say, avowed Communists to federal judgeships. Of course that ignores the fact that such a nomination still would require majority support in the Senate; it simply wouldn't require the supermajority of 60 votes previously needed.

In reality, the change to the rules is an acknowledgement of the modern climate in Washington, D.C. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader, has said in the past that Republicans would do away with the filibuster when they regain control of the Senate, and he reiterated that assertion last week in the wake of the Democrats' move.

Gregory Koger, a University of Miami political scientist and author of "Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate," last week told The Washington Post, "Over the last 50 years, we have added a new veto point in American politics. It used to be the House, the Senate and the president, and now it's the House, the president, the Senate majority, and the Senate minority. Now you need to get past four veto points to pass legislation."

Prior to the 1970s, filibusters were exceedingly rare. Now they have become a bludgeon for the minority to enforce their will. Republicans in recent years have used filibusters an unprecedented number of times to block nominees or to block legislation; Democrats likely would do the same the next time they are in the minority. The changes in the meaning and the usage of the filibuster called for changes to the rules; it was only a matter of time.

The primary question now is what kind of changes are likely to follow. Sooner or later — perhaps as soon as January 2015 — Democrats are going to be in the minority in the Senate. And the guess is that the filibuster will seem perfectly reasonable to them at that point.