Thursday, January 24, 2013

Filibuster reform

For those who would have liked to see the Senate enact more sweeping filibuster reform than the small steps they agreed to today (I for one would have), and for those inclined to blame the Senate leadership (Harry Reid) for taking such timid steps ( I would rather give them the benefit of the doubt), here's one possible way to think about this issue:

Let's say you're playing a game. It could be a team sport like baseball, or a card game, doesn't matter. If you're going to change the rules of the game, it is best to do that by agreement with the other side. Because if you just announce new rules that tend to favor your side, you are going to cause all kinds of resentment. And your opponent is going to get back at you somehow.

Politics is a kind of game, but not always a game of equals. Elections often give one side an advantage in numbers. And it's understandable for the side that has legitimately won superior numbers to think that they should win most of the time. That's the principle of majority rule. That's how democracy is supposed to work. My point would be that even in that situation it is dangerous for the majority to change the rules to give them even more of an advantage, without also considering the wishes of the minority, and without considering the possibility that they might find themselves in the minority again someday.

Change comes slowly and incrementally. The filibuster is not going away any time soon. If your party is in the minority, you're happy to have it. But if you abuse the privilege too much, as Republicans did in the last four years, the privilege must be cut back a bit. Hopefully that will reduce the abuse. But it's always better to have everyone agree on the rules changes rather than to impose them unilaterally. The so-called "nuclear option" of rules changes imposed by the majority party was best employed only as a threat to compel a bi-partisan agreement on rules changes. Whenever the Senate can agree to change anything by the kind of overwhelming bi-partisan vote they got today, that gives grounds for hope. Anything you can get done by agreement is always better than what you can get done by railroading the opposition, even if the result isn't quite what you wanted. And those who are angry and frustrated that we did not get stronger reforms should still ask themselves: are the rules today better than they were yesterday? If so, that means we are making progress toward your goal.

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