Sorry President Trump: Abolishing the filibuster will not Make America Great Again
(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on May 30, 2017.)
President Trump's recent call to abolish the Senate filibuster is misguided and should be ignored.
While his frustration is understandable given the lack of progress Congress has made on reforming healthcare and taxes, heeding the president's call will not move these two important initiatives any closer to becoming law. Instead, it will only make the Senate's current dysfunction worse.
Unlike in the House of Representatives, Senate majorities cannot run roughshod over the minority in the process of passing its agenda. The most well-known reason why is that Senate rules permit a minority of its members to filibuster (i.e. block) legislation supported by the majority. The filibuster empowers a minority of the Senate to block a final vote on a bill because it takes more votes to end a filibuster (typically 60) than it does to pass legislation (typically 51).
But the fact remains that the filibuster is not the reason why the president's agenda has stalled in the Senate. The real culprit is a lack of agreement among the Senate's Republicans on how best to repeal and replace Obamacare and how to reform the tax code. Their unified opposition to the Obama agenda over the last eight years obscured deeper divisions over policy that were not healed simply by the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010.
The filibuster has not prevented the Senate from passing the American Health Care Act or taking up tax reform. Lacking a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the chamber's Republicans have long planned on using a special budgetary process known as reconciliation to overcome an expected Democratic filibuster of both measures. Debate time on reconciliation bills is limited to 20 hours. Such measures cannot be filibustered and the support of a simple majority of senators is sufficient to overcome an effort by the minority to delay an up-or-down vote on final passage.
While eliminating the filibuster will not meaningfully improve the Senate's ability to pass a healthcare bill or tax reform, doing so will exacerbate the institution's current dysfunction. Admittedly, the Senate's legislative productivity may improve at the margins on issues that cleanly divide the chamber's membership along partisan lines. But such productivity gains will come at the expense of the Senate's ability to deliberate.
The filibuster is an important source of leverage for the minority. Eliminating it will make the majority more likely to attempt to enact its agenda with little or no debate and without first considering alternative proposals on the Senate floor. Consequently, the most important decisions will continue to be made off the Senate floor, out of public view, behind closed doors. Without the filibuster, the only difference is that it will be much more difficult for a minority consisting of senators from either party to do anything about it.
Making policy in this way further centralizes power in the party leadership and makes it harder for rank-and-file senators to participate in shaping legislation on behalf of their constituents. It also makes it more difficult for the president to influence the policy process by going over the heads of individual senators and appealing directly to voters to support (or oppose) a specific policy pending before the Senate. With most, if not all, decisions made behind closed doors, it is virtually-impossible for constituents to assign responsibility for policy outcomes. And it is difficult for the president to use the bully pulpit to influence policy outcomes absent such responsibility.
There is another way. The president should not resign himself to endless minority obstruction of his agenda. Instead of calling for the filibuster to be abolished, the president should call on the Senate to get to work. A robust and freewheeling legislative debate over important questions in committees and on the Senate floor forces consequential decisions into public view and increases the president's ability to influence outcomes. It also enables a Senate majority to increase the physical and political costs of obstruction on individual members in the minority.
Overcoming minority obstruction without eliminating the filibuster requires hard work. But Trump and his allies in Congress will only succeed in making America great again if they are determined to outwork the other side.