Thermonuclear Option: The Explicit Danger in Eliminating the Filibuster

Posted: Jan 25, 2021 12:01 AM
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Thermonuclear Option: The Explicit Danger in Eliminating the Filibuster

Source: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

As Americans send a 50-50 Senate and 221-211 House to Washington, many of our friends on the Left are pushing for dramatic policy swings reflective of the dramatic march leftward of the Democratic party every year since Obama’s departure from office. The 2016 election represented a rude interruption of the destiny Obama’s election and tenure were supposed to herald.

As each year passes, we see departure from procedural practices Americans have long embraced. It’s easy politics, once in power, to do so and easy politics to castigate those in power for wanting to do so. An oft-told example is the back-and-forth escalation over the judicial filibuster rules that Majority Leaders Schumer and McConnell traded last decade. Because the sky is blue, McConnell’s Supreme Court filibuster elimination will be referenced as cause to justify Schumer’s coming excesses. This makes it unsurprising if you keep in mind that we live in an era of radical maneuvers, ones that stress the fabric of our institutions: impeachments as common practice, censures, executive actions unmoored from constitutional reality.

But remembering the age we’re in also demands of us caution, and the elimination of the Senate filibuster in place recognizably since 1917 will be uniquely destabilizing. The very thing we can not afford as a nation is for dramatic and one-sided federal action on the issues we’ve been divided over for so many years. Lowering the degree of consensus necessary for dramatic swings in policy, enacting them absent broad national support, will raise the political stakes beyond comprehension and make the fervor of the 2020 election an unremarkable footnote.

A big reason that the Affordable Care Act was so embittered, caused such rancor, was because the president at the time chose to pass the legislation without having first established a national consensus for it. That lack of support was evidenced in polls, the organic movements that rose up against it, and the need for Democrats to resort to budget reconciliation to pass it. The latter applies to the Trump tax cuts as well. The unfortunate lessons many have taken from that episode are evidenced in the result: those laws stuck and increased in popularity, and so justified the painful process of swallowing them, with extremely bitter side effects. That might made right, even if departing from regular legislative practice.

But the filibuster is different. The degree of major legislation – the type that will truly impact the lives of each American – that we would see with the elimination of the filibuster tempts the well-meaning, those who see it as their charge to implement historic change. Yet to impact the lives of every American in that way, and to try and claim victory on decades-long policy disputes, without having first established a national consensus is not just wrong, it’s dangerously destabilizing. This applies to a change in Rule 22, which won’t occur this term, but even "reform by ruling" on individual policy priorities of the type proposed by Obama at John Lewis’ funeral. If that’s the intention and demeanor that Biden inherits from his Democratic predecessor, instability will follow. The American people have not given their permission for this level of departure. Moving forward major domestic legislation without an accompanying national consensus will overflow the powder in the keg.

Asking the body politic to stomach dramatic swings in policy every few years will not just raise the temperature; it will set us on a path to disunion. Not only will it prevent us from uniting or unplugging, Americans will be forced to pay closer attention than ever, ingesting massive federally-driven changes and battling politically with more fervor than ever before. News junkies will be the norm, trying to piece together how the federal government is impacting their lives and businesses that week or month. More importantly, each transfer of legislative power will then result in massive and alienating swings in the other direction, again absent a strong consensus and thus enraging half the country. That is the greater danger, that the pace of change and the competing whipsaws of policy unleashed will diminish the bonds of federal union at the very time it’s at its weakest. This is not the time and place in our history for this degree of partisan-driven aggression, it will present too bumpy a ride for a populace as divided as ours, and our political union may not survive it.

Our gridlock is a natural and appropriate result of our division, and the ideological gulf is widening still. Simply lowering the amount of support from the populace required to embark on dramatic federal interventions is a short-sighted and dangerous absurdity. We will take the legitimacy crises that have plagued four presidencies in a row and apply them to the legislature. Biden and the Democrats temptation will be allow their ideology to blind them. They will be tempted to say that “enough of us came together to carry all of us,” and that the cost of progress is temporary instability. But eliminating the filibuster ensures it’s not enough of us, not for the type of change they seek, and it’ll carry all us off of a cliff.