Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

Is This the Dumbest Filibuster Defense Ever Written?

I cannot believe this column was published in a national newspaper.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

I have read a lot of bad arguments for the filibuster. They typically consist of a hazy or outright false historical account of how the filibuster was created, a post hoc rationalization for its existence, and some hyperbolic scenario of the nightmare world that would be created by allowing legislation to pass by majority rule. I am not sure I have ever read a filibuster defense quite as stupid as the one that appears in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The column is written by Mike Solon and Bill Greene, former advisers to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, respectively, and now (naturally) lobbyists. Despite the fact that they are apparently paid by profitable corporations for their political advice, neither author has even the basic grasp of American government that would be required to pass a high-school civics course.

Their central argument for the filibuster is that it allows most Americans to tune out politics. Under a majority-rule system, they warn, literally every pursuit other than political activism would end: “Eliminating the Senate filibuster would end the freedom of America’s political innocents. The lives that political nobodies spend playing, praying, fishing, tailgating, reading, hunting, gardening, studying and caring for their children would be spent rallying, canvassing, picketing, lobbying, protesting, texting, posting, parading and, above all, shouting.”

This is a rather bold thesis. One way to test it would be to look at some places that allow majorities to enact legislation and see if they have stamped out — or even reduced — praying, fishing, caring for children, and so on. The United States Senate used to pass legislation on a majority-rule basis, and its people still had plenty of time to read, hunt, etc. Every state government, and every other democratic government in the world, also has the ability to pass laws on a majority basis. You would think a result as dramatic as the complete elimination of all non-political activity would show up somewhere in these places. Yet the authors produce no evidence whatsoever.

Solon and Greene have other familiar elements of the pro-filibuster formula. They repeatedly imply, without stating directly, that the Founders created the filibuster as part of the design of the Constitution:

When our Founding Fathers set up the Senate, it was precisely the needs, the agenda and the lives of millions of political nobodies that they meant to protect … No simple majority in Congress may shut down the press, deny trial by jury, take property without compensation, or violate other constitutional rights. Any tinkering with these rights would require a supermajority in both houses. Similarly, the filibuster imposes a similar supermajority constraint on the Senate’s ability to enact important changes.

The Founders deliberately created a supermajority requirement to alter the Constitution. They rejected proposals to require a supermajority vote to pass laws. It has become common, almost required, for filibuster defenders to cite the Founders as if they designed the filibuster, a practice that is both a result and a cause of the widespread misimpression as to how the practice came into being.

Perhaps the most bizarre passage in the column is this one, which combines a series of wild predictions and complete misunderstandings into a fantastical prediction:

With more people directly involved in politics, friction could arise such that two parties wouldn’t be enough. A simple-majority parliamentary government might evolve, spawning numerous parties and necessitating unstable coalition governments. If England, a less diverse country with fewer people, needs 11 political parties in its House of Commons, how many parties would the U.S. need?

Solon and Greene, searching for an international comparison to validate their theories, have come up with “England.” Presumably, they mean the United Kingdom, the nation that contains England, but which hasn’t been called England for the last 500 years.

Somehow, they believe that a Senate in which legislation can pass with 50 votes would turn the United States into a parliamentary system, even though that would require a completely different constitutional design. Under a parliamentary system, a prime minister is chosen by the legislature. Under a presidential system, by contrast, a president is elected independently of the legislature.

The U.S. Constitution requires presidential elections. If it sounds insulting to be repeating basic civics background that is known to millions of schoolchildren, bear in mind that two men who worked for the leaders of Congress and now sell their expertise to important firms apparently don’t know any of these facts.

What’s more, they seem to believe that in this imaginary parliamentary system that would somehow be created after the filibuster goes, the number of parties would proliferate because it is proportional to the population. Why do they believe that? It is hard to say. Israel has many active parties despite being much smaller than the U.K.

Also, none of the things that Solon and Greene claim would happen in the absence of a filibuster — the banishment of all non-political activity — have actually transpired in the U.K. or in any country with a majority-vote legislature. Do they think everybody who lives there has become a full-time political activist? Given that they think the country is still called England, we cannot rule out the possibility.

The conceit of Solon and Greene’s column is that the filibuster protects regular people — “nobodies,” they call them — who don’t pay attention to politics. “Maybe the nobodies don’t vote in every election or know the names of their elected officials,” they write, “but they do know what is important to them.”

It might seem hypocritical for two men who worked as advisers to congressional leaders and currently sell their political expertise to businesses to pose as champions of people who don’t know anything about politics. But on second thought, it might not be hypocritical at all. Who’s to say a complete lack of knowledge about American politics should prevent you from having a career in politics?

Is This the Dumbest Filibuster Defense Ever Written?