Harry Reid Turns Against Filibuster

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I've finally had enough. Photo: KAREN BLEIER/2011 AFP

I may think that President Obama’s flip-flop on gay marriage is not that big a deal, but you know what is that big a deal? Harry Reid’s flip-flop on Senate reform:

“If there were ever a time when Tom Udall and Jeff Merkley were prophetic, it’s tonight,” Reid said on the floor. “These two young, fine senators said it was time to change the rules of the Senate, and we didn’t. They were right. The rest of us were wrong — or most of us, anyway. What a shame.”

Reid added: “If there were anything that ever needed changing in this body, it’s the filibuster rules, because it’s been abused, abused, abused.”

Old-school Senators cherish the filibuster, and Reid has always been a staunch institutionalist.  I once had the chance to ask him about the filibuster off the record, expecting he might furnish a more nuanced view than his public stance, but he seemed genuinely committed to the principle of minority rule.

The filibuster is a longstanding problem of American government, and one that some of us wanted to solve even when Democrats were the ones using it. Once a rarely used tool of strong dissent, it has become a routine supermajority requirement that the Republican party has now turned into a device to halt even the basic workings of government. Republicans have regularly blocked even non-controversial appointees to essential government agencies.

In my column about Richard Lugar’s primary defeat, I expressed concern that it will cause Republicans to oppose Democratic Supreme Court nominees en masse. Opposition to Supreme Court nominees has risen on both sides, but it remains, for now, largely show opposition, like the debt-ceiling vote used to be, as opposed to a concerted effort to block approval. But if Supreme Court votes start playing by the same Senate rules as all other votes, we’ll be staring at a deep crisis of governance.

The general Washington establishment view is that the solution is for the two parties to start being nice to each other and having meals together. As I wrote in my piece about Lugar, party activists have every right to use primaries to nominate more ideologically congenial candidates. Seth Mandel of Commentary built an angry ad hominem rant against my column largely around his misunderstanding of the term “social norm,” which refers to the way generally understood practices have constrained the use of such tools as the filibuster. (Mandel thinks it has something to do with politeness.)

I don’t think restoring social norms that require political parties to act against their own interest is the answer. Effective political systems harness the self-interest of politicians. They don’t hope politicians will ignore their self-interest. Limiting or even abolishing the filibuster won’t cure everything that ails a creaky American governmental system that never anticipated the rise of parties. But it’s a crucial step, and Reid’s endorsement is a major development.

The scary possibility is that Lugar's defeat will extend the paralysis of the Senate to the Supreme Court process. But the hopeful possibility is that the parties will continue to grow more ideologically coherent, and the institutions of government will change to reflect that reality.