Ending the Senate filibuster may be bad for government

The recent vote in the U. S. Senate to end the filibuster in judicial nomination cases (with the exception of Supreme Court nominees) will allow the majority party to confirm the President’s judicial nominees more swiftly and with less vocal opposition, but will the end of the filibuster mean better government?

There are two reasons to be wary of this historic change in the rules by which the Senate acts.  First, there will be less deliberation about the merits of judicial nominees, and second, the tradition of civility in the chamber will likely deteriorate even more in the coming months and years.

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Despite the complaints that there is too much obstructionism in D.C., the Founding Fathers actually promoted the establishment of a system with obstacles.  They did this in order to slow down the legislative process so that discussion and deliberation would characterize political decision-making, rather than whims or favoritism.  By abolishing the filibuster, when the party in the White House and the majority party in the Senate are the same, the president’s nominees will be approved more swiftly, but their abilities and judicial temperaments will also be less scrutinized.  This could well result in less fit characters serving on the federal bench. 

The American founders envisioned the Senate as a smaller and more deliberate body than the House of Representatives.  It was intentionally designed to slow the political pace in order to achieve, in the words of James Madison, “the cool and deliberate sense of the community.” 

Unlike the larger and more boisterous House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate has always had less rules governing it and has traditionally been thought of as a chamber characterized by civility and friendliness (at least until recent years).  It has been more the norm than the exception in the chamber’s 200+ years of existence for members of the rival parties to treat each other with not only politeness and decorum, but with genuine warmth and respect.

One of the clearest manifestations of respect for one’s colleagues on the other side of the aisle in the Senate has been to refuse to limit the time for debate.  This takes on special significance in the case of the most important and often deeply divisive issues.  The refusal to limit debate assures every member – including the members in the minority who are going to be defeated on a measure about which they may care profoundly – to have their say and to exhaust every opportunity to try to persuade their colleagues to their point of view.  Even if they fail in their endeavor, when the vote is concluded and all is said and done, they know that the measure has not be railroaded through the process and that they have been treated with fairness and respect. 

This is the politics of civility for which the United States Senate used to be known.  Do we really want to leave this old tradition behind us?

Sheehan is professor of Political Science and director of The Matthew J. Ryan Center at Villanova University.