Many pundits have written that the action by Senate Democrats to change the rules and limit filibusters was necessary. Now, a simple majority — rather than 60 votes — is all that’s necessary to proceed on judicial and executive branch nominees.
At this point, however, it’s prudent to believe similar rule relaxations for legislation and Supreme Court nominees (which are exempt from the rule change), aren’t far off. It’s a fundamental change to our legislative process that few noticed.
President Obama, the immediate beneficiary of the change, insisted it was needed to address “an unprecedented pattern of obstruction in Congress.” That’s ironic considering he caused such obstruction as a senator during the Bush presidency, lamenting “the partisan atmosphere in Washington will be poisoned to the point where no one will be able to agree on anything,” if the same rule change were made.
Conservatives were right to oppose the change now and in 2005, when they considered it to stop perpetual filibusters of Bush judicial nominees.
To understand the scope of potential damage wrought by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Obama, it is important to understand the original intent and design of the Senate.
James Madison, principal author of the Constitution, also wrote some of the Federalist Papers meant to explain and promote it during the ratification process. In Federalist 62, Madison explained that the Senate is a body meant to avoid being “seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions.”
The Constitution originally called for state legislatures to select senators. Madison argued state governments needed this to “secure the authority of the former [states],” and “form a convenient link between the two systems.” Madison further explained the Senate “doubles the security to the people, by requiring the concurrence of two distinct bodies in schemes of usurpation or perfidy.”
Madison, in short, envisioned the Senate as a check against runaway government — a calming, prudent body less prone to haphazard, knee-jerk reactions.
Consider what has happened since Madison’s era. The filibuster, created by rules adopted by the first Senate body, was used to disallow narrow majorities from passing potentially harmful legislation. President Woodrow Wilson, seeking to enhance executive power, pushed for the creation of cloture — a way to end filibusters if a certain amount of senators voted to close debate (it was 60 votes at the time of the recent change). The 17th Amendment stripped away the selection of senators by state legislatures, meaning both chambers of Congress directly represent the people.
Why is that history lesson important?
This rule change is just the latest in a series of changes to strip the Senate’s ability to protect the rights of the minority and provide a measure of necessary contrition when apparent crises lead to hurried legislative actions. And that has not been given the national discussion it deserves.