Even while they mesmerized and romanticized me as a boy I knew in my heart of hearts that Frank Capra movies never quite approximated real life. Thanks to that healthy cynicism I was not deeply shaken by the recent hubbub over filibuster reforms, but it doesn’t bode well for the state of the union.
Discussion of the proposed reforms has been somewhat overshadowed by more visible issues (i.e. guns, etc.), but forecasts better than most the difficulties facing the American democratic process in the coming years.
In a surprising show of opposition to members of his own caucus, Harry Reid blocked the efforts of several freshman Democrat senators to reform the filibuster by rendering it impossible to initiate or, at the least, returning in practice to the “talking filibuster” of the last century. As it now stands, minority Republicans can force a 60-vote threshold on nearly any business that comes to the floor and, because the threat of a filibuster has come to carry the force of a filibuster, this can often be done by a single senator without his even needing to be present on the floor. No Mr. Smith reading the Constitution, no Bernie Sanders giving a marathon speech; just a stern phone call.
Debate on the issue has revealed that some on the left (at least implicitly) understand “democracy” to mean the licensing of a majority to railroad the political minority, and we obviously find ourselves at odds with such a notion. But neither should we be quick to look past the conduct of the Republican minority—effectively requiring a super-majority for all senate business. On the question of congressional super-majorities Alexander Hamilton had the following to say:
“its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of government and to substitute the pleasure, caprice or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junta, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.” (Fed. 22)
James Madison likewise wrote that
“In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule; the power would be transferred to the minority.” (Fed. 58)
The recent talks represented an opportunity to moderate between the two extremes. But reform didn’t come.
The likeliest motivation behind Reid’s decision to block most of the reforms is the consideration that his own party may soon lose their majority in the Senate. Rather than attempt to check a dangerous trend in congressional procedure, veteran Democratic senators want to hedge their bets, reserving their right to substitute their pleasure and caprice for “regular deliberations and decisions” and “embarrass a [Republican] administration” that will no doubt be looking to do some railroading of its own. Ostensibly the discussion of filibuster reforms ended in a compromise between Reid and the Senate minority leader, but the outcome presages only further breakdown of democracy.