Senate rules to extend debate serve a distinctly conservative, and constitutional, purpose.
January 14, 2016
In particular, many want an end to cloture and the filibuster—long-standing rules that enable the minority to extend debate. It takes 60 rather than 51 votes to get anything important done in the 100-person Senate. Today that hamstrings the GOP majority in both houses.
In response, I have three thoughts to share with fellow conservative colleagues. First, I’m really frustrated too. Second, the filibuster flows from the Founders’ design of a system in which they wanted to make it hard, not easy, for government to act. Third, the desire to limit debate so government can move quickly is usually a radical, not a conservative, instinct.
Let’s start with our mutual frustration: What has really changed since Republicans took over Congress? Were promises to roll back President Obama’s agenda of “fundamentally transforming” the nation empty rhetoric? Isn’t it time to enact a conservative agenda? If Senate Democrats stand in our way, why not change the rules? After all—to quote the president—don’t elections have consequences?
Here’s the problem. Progressives believe power—that is the government—is the center of life. We don’t. They place more faith in government than we do. They want to make it easier, more “efficient,” to grow the government. So making it easier for government to act when Republicans are in the majority might have consequences we will regret when we are next in the minority.
The 3 most consequential moments in the growth of fed power in the past century show why we need the filibuster: https://t.co/5vQsNnkjQM— Senator Ben Sasse (@SenSasse) January 15, 2016
Consider the three most consequential moments in the growth of federal power in the past century—the 1930s New Deal, the mid-1960s Great Society programs, and the first two years of this administration that brought us, among other things, ObamaCare. All occurred when Democrats had the White House, a majority in Congress and, crucially, supermajorities in the Senate. They could act unimpeded by a Republican minority.
If Republicans eliminate the Senate’s supermajority requirements to pass bills in the name of efficiency, it will guarantee that every time Democrats have the presidency and even a bare majority in both houses of Congress, they will party like it’s 1936, 1965 and 2009. They will grow government, and there will be nothing conservatives can do about it.
Imagine what Democratic majorities could do with no Senate filibuster: cap and trade, a national gun registry, federal abolition of state right-to-work laws, the abolition of secret-ballot union representation elections in favor of card checks, record tax increases. Everything would be in play. Such a Congress could tick off every box on Bernie Sanders’s wish list, and conservatives would have handed them the cudgel to do so.
Conservatism begins from a different starting point: Government is not the center of life. It is not the source of our rights. Government exists to provide the framework for ordered liberty—that is, to protect our God-given rights so that free people can freely worship, freely associate, freely build the next app, even freely root for Alabama football.
The Founders had this conception too. They limited the government because they believed in nearly limitless human potential. They knew that America is more than a group of Washington bureaucracies and their supplicants. The genius of the Constitution is that it separates legislative, executive and judicial powers. It checks each branch’s power to limit the risk that Washington smothers the dignity of individuals and the dynamism of local communities—the real centers of life and love.
Conservatives might be tempted to curtail minority rights for supposedly conservative policies, but that’s playing with fire. Any short-term political gain from undoing the filibuster comes at long-term expense. Making the Senate more efficient might get a few bills to the president’s desk this year, but at the risk of accelerating our devolution into a European-style winner-take-all system. Oh, and by the way, President Obama would veto these conservative bills anyway.
The filibuster is an outgrowth of the Founders’ vision of two distinct, complementary legislative bodies. The House is built for offense. It closely reflects public opinion with a two-year term. The Senate is built for defense. It exists to cool the popular passions of the House, and to serve as a brake on a too-powerful executive.
The Senate is not superior to the House, but it is different. Without the filibuster, the gap between House and Senate diminishes and with it our constitutional safeguards.
Rather than abandon the filibuster, conservatives should understand that deliberative debate exists to protect the Constitution, and preserve the nation’s fundamentally conservative principles. We reject the notion that Washington can manage all of life’s challenges. We dismiss the fantasy that we are only one election or one strongman away from solving life’s problems by power politics.
We should embrace debate. We should celebrate limited government. We should seek to persuade. And we should use the floors of Congress in 2016 to tell the American people what we would pursue if they send a Republican to the White House in November.