Pres. Obama is right to be frustrated by the worsening abuse of the filibuster in the Senate. Senate Democrats deserve every inch of scorn for being too timid to actually use the power they’ve accrued. I suspect the rapid re-evaluation of Lyndon Johnson on the left has at least something to do with his having been a Democrat who was not afraid to use every bit of power he could,  in contrast with today’s Dems who walk on eggshells even after winning a major victory.

But I would like to make one contrarian point. Harry Reid has taken the brunt of the blowback over substantive filibuster reform failing, but it’s not like there’s no argument to be made for his behavior. An important part of political leadership is insulating the people you lead from political risk, and the filibuster is an excellent tool for doing that. This is why, traditionally, it’s been a popular tool regardless of party. Absent a filibuster, senators would have to take a lot more tough votes on actual bills, not procedural votes that take a few seconds to explain what they mean. Republicans voting en masse against a bill to increase the minimum wage would look just awful, for example. Having a filibuster in place is some insurance that a lot of the controversial stuff doesn’t come to the floor, which means fewer tough votes. Only procedural votes on it that supposedly bores people.

That said, while avoiding potential risk is a component of political leadership, it’s only one component, and it’s hard to make the case that keeping Democrats from losing elections is worth the cost of enduring an escalating battle against getting ever more routine business done.


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