Why Democrats Should Fear Filibuster Reform

Why Democrats Should Fear Filibuster Reform

By Sean Trende - January 24, 2013

The latest word out of the Senate is that if Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t accede to changes in the filibuster rules over the next few days, Harry Reid will invoke the so-called “nuclear option” and change the rules with 51 votes. The most likely outcome would be outlawing the filibuster on motions to proceed, thereby forcing senators to take to the floor to filibuster bills, “Mr. Smith”-style.

This move, and the overwhelming progressive enthusiam for it, are head-scratchers. Over the short-to-medium term (and no one can really see beyond that), the filibuster probably helps the Democrats more than it helps the Republicans.  Before going any further, let me make clear that the following argument is couched purely in terms of political advantage and ability to move the agenda. I think there's a lot to be said for what we might call the small-"c" conservative arguments for the filibuster: requiring 60 votes creates the need for some sort of consensus before legislation moves through, and the chances of a destabilizing period of time where parties trade majorities and implement wildly divergent agendas willy-nilly are greatly diminished. In that sense, the filibuster helps the entire country, and both parties should be pleased with it.

That said, let’s analyze the politics of the filibuster, beginning with the following observation: The filibuster doesn’t really matter unless you control the House of Representatives, Senate, and presidency -- what we might call the “trifecta.” Even if Reid were to lower the number of votes needed to move legislation through the Senate to 20 votes, it still wouldn’t significantly advance the Democratic cause in Congress, because the Republican House acts as an effective filibuster. Similarly, when Republicans hold the presidency, a veto would stop any legislation.

Sure, a Democratic Senate sans-filibuster could pass legislation that might make a Republican House or president uncomfortable, and would be able to prevent its most vulnerable members from casting difficult votes (Blanche Lincoln, for example, would not have had to cast the deciding vote for Obamacare, and Democrats might still hold her seat). And to the extent that Republicans might try to block judges or cabinet appointees, the filibuster matters. But that is a two-way street (Lincoln Chafee might still be around had he not had to vote for parts of President Bush’s agenda), and in terms of advancing a progressive agenda, without the trifecta, the filibuster is largely superfluous.

So here’s the problem for Democrats: Republican trifectas are more likely, all other things being equal, than Democratic trifectas, at least in the near future. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Democrats have a structural demographic edge in the presidency (I don’t agree, but let’s assume). Even the most rabid defenders of what we might call the Emerging Democratic Majority thesis concede that Republicans will still win the presidency if there is a recession, unpopular war, or other national upheaval.

Those contingencies happen with some regularity. So setting aside the fact that in the long run, presidential races sort out much the same way as do coin flips (the parties have each won the popular vote 20 times since the Republican Party was founded), let’s assume that in the short-to-medium term Democrats will win the presidency two-thirds of the time.

The House is another matter entirely. While it isn’t impossible for Democrats to retake the House (even in 2014), it is difficult. This is a subject worthy of a separate article, but given the current redistricting lines, and given how the Democrats’ coalition has sorted out into tightly packed geographic constituencies (urban liberals, minorities crammed into minority-majority districts), it makes a switch unlikely except in wave years.

Take 2012 as an example. With an electorate that featured one of the most favorable demographic tilts toward Democrats in recent memory, with a president winning by a decent margin, and with Democrats even winning the popular vote for the House by a point, Republicans won the third-largest number of seats they have enjoyed after an election since the 1920s.

The fact that we assume Democrats will dominate presidential elections works against them here as well. Since we began regularly holding our House elections in even years (around the Civil War), a party has captured control of the House in an election held while that party also held the presidency exactly once: 1948.

So let’s assign Democrats a 20 percent chance of winning the House. That leaves us with the Senate. The Senate is a natural GOP gerrymander. Consider: Mitt Romney lost by 3.8 points, but still carried 24 states. John McCain lost by 7.3 points, but carried 22 states. On the other hand, when John Kerry lost by only 2.5 points, he carried just 19 states. Twenty-seven states currently have Republican PVIs, meaning that in a completely neutral environment, we’d expect them to vote for a Republican.

Over the long term, this translates into an advantage for Republicans, since presidential results are fairly predictive of where Senate races shake out. Obviously there are shortcomings with this approach: Democrats run better in West Virginia than recent presidential results would suggest, while Republicans run better in Maine. Poor candidate choice (think Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois, Todd Akin in Missouri) can disproportionately hurt the parties, while unfavorable environments combined with overexposure (a la Republicans in 2008, Democrats in 1980) can result in disaster. But over time these contingencies should cancel each other out, and Republicans should tend to win control.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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