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Will Democracy Be Coming to the United States Senate?


I have a piece up at the Prospect arguing that what Greg Sargent sees a nightmare scenario is in fact a dream scenario if we expand our time horizons a bit. Since the filibuster is a terrible idea in theory that’s worked out horribly in practice, if it takes a temporary advantage for Republicans to get rid of it, fine with me.

In addition to the fundamental indefensibility of the filibuster, I’d like to expand on this point a bit:

Despite the many bad effects of the filibuster, Democrats may understandably be terrified of what kind of legislation might pass if Republicans had control of the government without a filibuster. But it is also important to note that with responsibility comes an accountability that creates political constraints. House Republicans could feel free to vote for Paul Ryan’s unpopular plan to effectively end Medicare because it had no chance of actually becoming legislation with Democrats in control of the other two branches. A Republican Party that was in control of all three branches might make the Ryan plan law—but it is much more likely that it would not. The filibuster was unnecessary to stop George W. Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, which didn’t even get voted on in either House. And where the Republicans are likely to do the most damage—by passing more upper-class tax cuts—can already be done without the filibuster.

Greg assumes that Republicans, given the opportunity, would make something like the Ryan plan (including the end of Medicare) into law. I actually think that’s far from clear — it’s one thing to vote to gut extremely popular entitlements when it has no chance of happening, and quite another to actually do it. A unified Republican government would pass a some terrible legislation without a filibuster, but I doubt this would involve anything as extreme as the Ryan plan. But even if they went in that direction, remember that ending the filibuster means that in order to sustain a repeal of the New Deal they couldn’t just rely on a Senate minority to lock in the new status quo — they’d have to hold Congress and the White House, having passed immensely unpopular legislation. Essentially, I don’t think progressives have anything to fear on balance from more democracy. (Which, alas, is why I think Kevin is right that the Republicans wouldn’t actually do it.)

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