Conservatives should embrace filibuster reform
Instead of crazy debt ceiling gambits, what if we just let majorities pass laws when they win
I did a quick take on the debt ceiling deal over the weekend, but I think it’s worth revisiting exactly what’s so vexing and sort of perplexing about this outcome:
It’s absolutely a solid win for conservatives that meaningfully reduces federal spending while leaving the door open to future GOP tax cutting and also giving military spending a somewhat privileged place in the firmament.
It’s absolutely a solid piece of political bargaining by Joe Biden, who after appearing to have boxed himself into a corner, managed to get out while agreeing to what is essentially a normal appropriations deal with a GOP-held House.
Given that, we’re left with the question of why Republicans put us through all this when there is a well-established and less potentially catastrophic process already in place for bargaining over appropriations.
Some of the answers to that question will have to come from those who are better-versed in reporting on the intra-caucus dynamics in the GOP. The Freedom Caucus, in particular, believes (apparently sincerely) that recent events — starting with Kevin McCarthy’s difficulty securing the votes to be installed as Speaker and playing through the debt ceiling crisis — represent a kind of step-change in their clout inside the Republican party. This doesn’t really seem true to me, objectively speaking, but factional politics is always a bit weird — and to an extent, perception is reality. Either way, inside dirt on House Republicans is not my metier.
What I do think is worth more consideration, though, is a topic that to the best of my knowledge isn’t on Republicans’ minds right now: the filibuster and its role in driving the party toward debt ceiling antics that ultimately do not succeed.
Republicans eventually settled for something they could have achieved through the normal appropriations process, but they started out asking for a lot more. Last fall, that was changes to Social Security and Medicare. This spring, it became — among other things — the REINS Act, a massive energy permitting overhaul, and structural changes to Medicaid. Why try to do this through debt ceiling hostage-taking? Well, because they’re trying to coerce Democrats into voting for Republican bills. But why do that? Why are Republicans asking themselves “how can we force our opponents to vote for stuff they disagree with?” rather than “how can we win elections so we can do our stuff?”
It all goes back to the filibuster.
There’s a bit of conventional wisdom that conservatives should love the filibuster because they can accomplish everything they want with 51 votes — judicial confirmations and tax cuts via budget reconciliation. We saw this spring that this isn’t true. Republicans don’t just want to do tax cuts and judicial confirmations. Their caucus includes a certain number of nutjobs and numbskulls and opportunists. But it also includes people who have ideas for substantive change in American public policy, and they are frustrated by a political system in which even if they win big, a rump minority of Democratic Party senators will be able to block their efforts at legislative change.
Policy change isn’t zero-sum
One of my most cringey and earnest beliefs is that even though electoral politics in the American system is inherently zero-sum — for John Fetterman to win, Dr. Oz must lose — policymaking is not like that. People come to the table with different sets of values and priorities and empirical beliefs and they form coalitions to try to advance those ideas. Smart policy changes can be win-win, and bad changes can be lose-lose.
And that’s what I find so frustrating about the state of the filibuster reform conversation.
This dialogue — one that I played a role in starting — began in 2009-2010 when Democrats held large majorities in Congress. Given the math at the time, the short-term implication of filibuster reform was clearly that Barack Obama would sign more progressive bills. Reform didn’t happen, but the push branded the cause as progressive. When Donald Trump became president and the GOP held a trifecta in 2017-2018, he started tweeting sporadically about the need for filibuster reform. I wish Democrats would have tried to engage with him a bit on finding a way to make a real bipartisan push, but this never became a serious thing. Filibuster reform re-emerged as a talking point in 2021, again as a purely progressive effort. I tried a couple of times to pitch this as an idea Joe Manchin should take seriously, but he didn’t agree.
So now, in 2023, I want to say that conservatives should look at embracing filibuster reform.
But how can reform be good for the left and for the right and for the center? Simple — this is a good idea, and because it is good, it would help advance multiple objectives simultaneously. People are unfortunately too locked into questions like “what is the immediate short-term implication of filibuster reform?” And the circumstances are always such that, as with the current Congress, it seems like it wouldn’t make a difference so nobody talks about it, or it would have some very predictable impact on short-term legislation so everyone views it through a narrow partisan or ideological lens.
My dream is to get people to take a more structural view. The filibuster makes it harder to pass legislation, and that’s good if you believe the status quo is close to perfect and any change is likely to be bad. But I don’t believe that, and I don’t think progressives or conservatives do either. I occasionally hear conservatives talk as if they believe this. But what we saw in the debt ceiling fight — and time and again before that — is that they don’t really. The American Republic has been around for almost 250 years, and there are lots of laws on the books. Left and right both favor policy change, and we would have healthier politics with more a spirit of “if you win you get a chance to do some policy change” and less a spirit of “to achieve policy change, we need to come up with crazy threats to blow up the world economy unless we can get our way.”
The productive dance of ideologies
People have been asking me a lot lately about the immigration aspects of “One Billion Americans” in light of the ongoing backlash against asylum-seekers at the southern border.
A lot of people saw Trump as the apotheosis of anti-immigrant politics and hoped that his defeat would lead to a waning of those sentiments. The truth is more like the opposite. Trump’s presence in office generated thermostatic backlash against nativism that induced a lot of liberals to exaggerate their own welcoming attitudes toward a chaotic influx. I try to be a little more thoughtful than the thermostatic mass public, and I think if you pop open the book, you’ll find that I try really hard to not endorse open borders or a devil-may-care attitude toward chaos. To quote myself, “the high-level conservative contentions that entry to the United States should be controlled by law and that permission to live here should be dictated more by national interest and less by happenstance make perfect sense.”
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