The Democrats and the filibuster

Ezra Klein has moved to the New York Times, and he has a very good piece up today.  His argument is familiar to anyone who follows his work, but well-argued and definitely worth reading. 

He begins with this:

President Biden takes office with a ticking clock. The Democrats’ margin in the House and Senate couldn’t be thinner, and midterms typically raze the governing party. That gives Democrats two years to govern. Two years to prove that the American political system can work. Two years to show Trumpism was an experiment that need not be repeated.

Two years.

This is the responsibility the Democratic majority must bear: If they fail or falter, they will open the door for Trumpism or something like it to return, and there is every reason to believe it will be far worse next time. To stop it, Democrats need to reimagine their role. They cannot merely defend the political system. They must rebuild it.

Klein believes that Democrats understand the need for bold action that provides clear benefits to people who are struggling and skeptical of government.  And he thinks they know what needs to be done.  However, he is worried that good policy intentions will die in the Senate unless the filibuster is eliminated, which he believes is unlikely:

But none of these bills will pass a Senate in which the filibuster forces 60-vote supermajorities on routine legislation. And that clarifies the real question Democrats face. They have plenty of ideas that could improve people’s lives and strengthen democracy. But they have, repeatedly, proven themselves more committed to preserving the status quo of the political system than fulfilling their promises to voters. They have preferred the false peace of decorum to the true progress of democracy. If they choose that path again, they will lose their majority in 2022, and they will deserve it.

Klein makes the case for structural democratic reform as well as anyone, I recommend his piece.  Here I just want to add two additional perspectives.

First, at least when it comes to the filibuster, the choice is not all-or-nothing.  As Michael Ettlinger wrote recently in Vox, there are partial filibuster reforms that may be able to secure the support of all 50 Senate Democrats.  In particular, Democrats could eliminate the filibuster for critical but popular legislation, say minimum wage reform or voting rights legislation.  They could create an exception for public health emergencies to get a covid bill through.  In addition, although Ettlinger does not mention this, the Democrats could make technical changes to allow more legislation to be passed through the reconciliation process with 50 votes or they could allow two reconciliation bills a year. This might make reform more palatable to senators who want to preserve the filibuster for political or substantive policy reasons.

Finally, an alternative view was provided a few weeks ago by Steven Teles:

The American voters chose to give the Democrats the White House, but denied them a mandate. Even if Democrats somehow squeak out wins in both Georgia Senate races, the Senate will then pivot on Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Not only does this take much of the liberal wish list off the table, it also makes deep structural reform of federal institutions impossible. There will be no new voting rights act in honor of the late Representative John Lewis, no statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and no Supreme Court packing. For that matter, the filibuster will not be eliminated, which would have been the essential predicate for all of those other changes as well as expansive climate or health care legislation. Anything that Democrats want to do that requires a party-line vote is forlorn.

In response to this disappointment, a number of left-of-center commentators have concluded that “democracy lost” in 2020. Our constitutional order, they argue, is rotten and an obstacle to majority rule. The Electoral College and the overrepresentation of small, mostly conservative states in the Senate is an outrage. As Ezra Klein has argued, our constitution “forces Democrats to win voters ranging from the far left to the center right, but Republicans can win with only right-of-center votes.” As a consequence, liberals can’t have nice things.

The argument is logical, but it is also a strategic dead end. The United States is and in almost any plausible scenario will continue to be a federal republic. We are constituted as a nation of states, not as a single unitary community, a fact that is hard-wired into our constitutional structure. Liberals may not like this, just as a man standing outside in a rainstorm does not like the fact he is getting soaked. But instead of cursing the rain, it makes a lot more sense for him to find an umbrella.

Liberals need to adjust their political strategy and ideological ambitions to the country and political system we actually have, and make the most of it, rather than cursing that which they cannot change.

Teles goes on to argue that Democrats should organize across the country, that they should deal with regional inequities, and recognize that some liberal slogans like “defund the police” do not travel well.  He concludes:

The Democratic Party has a future within the constitution the country has. The question for the next decade is, will we withdraw into pointless dreams of sweeping constitutional change or make our peace with our country and its constitution, seeking allies in unlikely places and squeezing out what progress we can get by organizing everywhere, even when the odds of success seem slim.

So, what should we make of this debate?  In my view all three viewpoints deserve to be heard.  People like Klein arguing for structural democratic reforms (voting rights, filibuster reform, new states, etc.) are right to think about what reform should look like, at least so they know what to do when (or if) an opportunity for reform arises.  At the same time, Democrats need to figure out how to win elections with the electoral system we have (Teles), and perhaps most important (Ettlinger) they need to figure out how they can get enough done within the current system so that they have some chance of retaining power in 2022 and 2024 and preventing a resurgence of Trumpism.