A CNN poll out this week must have been a disappointment to some progressives. According to the poll, a majority of the public – 56 percent – supports the use of the filibuster in the Senate, versus 39 percent who oppose it. I wouldn’t bet the farm that this majority would hold up against any number of equivalent questions worded differently, but the results should at least prompt us to stop and think about the growing end-the-filibuster strain on the left.
Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, among other progressives, have grown increasingly frustrated with the Senate as the imperative of winning 60 senators’ votes for a health care reform bill has driven the debate on the Hill this year. But hold up! Are progressives really willing to take their chances with a future GOP-controlled Senate empowered to pass whatever they have 51 votes for? With the Supreme Court nominees who could be seated (to say nothing of other judgeships)? With the restrictions on abortion and LGBQT rights? With welfare reforms?
These culture-war issues call to mind one of the benefits of the filibuster — it protects unpopular groups and rights from the tyranny of the majority. Indeed, as Klein and Yglesias have also argued, the Senate’s structure already gives outsized influence to small states with relatively conservative electorates. “Majority rule” isn’t quite as enlightened a principle when the majority is a majority of senators rather than a majority of the national electorate.
Of course, the filibuster also prevents the will of the majority of voters from being implemented in some instances. But there is something to be said for requiring that the most consequential policies have more support than a simple 50.1 percent majority. Large tax changes, changes to major programs, and the creation of new ones are often hard to undo. In some ways it makes sense to subject such legislation to a higher bar.
Klein has argued that the filibuster makes entitlement reform and governing itself practically impossible, but I think this is a misreading of the problem. The reason that prospects for major reforms are so dim is not that such reforms require 60 votes — it is that the Senate has become so polarized that there are too few swing votes available to get to 60.
One can imagine a Senate in which legislators could be arranged in a continuum from most liberal to most conservative such that there were as many moderates as liberals as conservatives. Or there might be a lot of moderates bunched up in the middle with few Senators at the extremes. In such a Senate, it would not be particularly difficult to get to 60 votes — there would often be compromises to be found to get over the bar.
However, the Senate that we have looks like this:
If the “Senate problem” is really about polarization, then the most obvious practical solution that presents itself is one that many progressives may not be too excited about – reform of primary elections so that senators are not chosen from the most ideological parts of their constituencies. But ironically, it’s possible that that would be the best way to achieve more progressive victories while at the same time avoiding tyrannical majorities.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of the Progressive Policy Institute.*
*Note: The original version of this post omitted the disclaimer.