Abolish the filibuster to abolish government shutdowns

Abolish the filibuster to abolish government shutdowns
© Getty

One year after President Donald Trump took his place in the Oval Office, the anniversary was commemorated with a three-day government shutdown, then a miraculous re-opening. Everyday Americans are supposed to feel a gigantic sense of relief. They don’t.

The grassroots activists who make up the foundation of the GOP didn’t care if the government shut down and did not blame the Republican Party for the unnecessary distraction. Maybe that’s why the Senate decided to vote81 to 18 to get back to business. All but 16 Democrats joined Republicans to pass the short-term spending package that’ll keep things going through February 8. Republicans, in exchange, said they will deal with the so-called “Dreamers” at a later date.

The Democrats knew Americans could see through their unprincipled opposition. The Democrats actually liked the contents of the spending bill, but Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump says he will meet with Schumer 'ASAP' after border visit Dem senator describes 'overcrowded quarters,' 'harsh odor' at border facilities Top Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties MORE (D-N.Y.) tried to squeeze the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program into it. Schumer’s squeeze play backfired horribly. Legalizing “Dreamers” in a spending bill didn’t fit and everyone, including the Democrats, knew it.  

Second, the Democrats realized Americans really weren’t all that bothered by the shutdown. In 2013, when “compassionate” liberals were in charge during a shutdown, they closed national monuments to make it painful for average Americans, holding citizens hostage through emotional manipulation. Now that Republicans control the executive branch, the Dems knew there wouldn’t be any melodramatic war memorial or museum closings just to make a point.

Now, with a little breathing room, Republicans need to change the rules of the Senate to make sure that the minority party can’t exercise such a cynical scheme again. The #SchumerShutdown was possible because 60 votes are required to break a filibuster. And as Leon Wolf has pointed out, “Democrats in the Senate can filibuster any spending bill they dislike.” But Republican leadership can revise that threshold to 51, a simple majority, cutting off that avenue for Democrats. Even President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE encouraged the Senate to use this so-called “nuclear option.”

The act of filibustering to prevent voting on a bill dates back to the mid-19th century. Because the tactic could be too easily abused by the minority party to block popular legislation, in the early 20th century the Senate adopted a rule known as cloture, which allowed a 2/3 majority to close debate; the number was lowered to 3/5, or 60 votes, in 1975. Although cloture has helped end some filibusters, it remains a high bar that is difficult to overcome in a divided Senate. According to the U.S. Senate website:

“Historically, filibusters were particularly useful to Southern senators who sought to block civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching legislation, until cloture was invoked after a 60 day filibuster against the Civil Right Act of 1964.”  

With such a long and sordid history of abuse, it seems well past the time when we should dispose of an anachronism that prevents the healthy function of a Senate whose job is to debate, and actually vote on legislation. The idea that a simple rule in the United States Senate, which may easily be changed by majority vote, is responsible for total gridlock in Washington, D.C., is patently absurd.

A view towards political history tells us that if the Republicans do not do away with this anachronism, then the Democrats most certainly will when they win a Senate majority. It is important to remember that former Senate Democrat Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidAl Franken says he 'absolutely' regrets resigning Dems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Webb: Questions for Robert Mueller MORE was the first to partially do away with the filibuster for judicial appointments when he was Senate Majority Leader and he forced Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller Time: Dems, GOP ready questions for high-stakes testimony Election security to take back seat at Mueller hearing McConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch MORE into ending the filibuster for Supreme Court candidates when it became clear Democrats would refuse any Republican nominee, no matter how qualified.

It is naive to believe that the Democrats will not again manipulate the rules to their own advantage when they are in the majority again. Failure by the Republicans to move now is simply weakness, and based on a “hope” that Democrats will behave better in the future.

In the last two weeks I have been on the ground with grassroots activists in West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Mississippi, and Utah. Not a single activist has expressed a single word of frustration with the Republicans or President Trump over the shutdown. I have heard over and over how pleased they are to see Republicans stand their ground and work to keep their campaign promises. And I have heard nothing but support for the idea of ending the filibuster, and allowing the Republicans to get on with the business of governing.

In the event that the voters more broadly do not like the result of Republican policies, they will respond at the ballot box. My impression from the polling on the immigration issue, and from general public sentiment, is that while they may not love President Trump, they are quite happy with tax cuts, the pay raises, the general economic improvement, and the overall direction of the country. And clearly using an archaic procedural tool to shut down the was not working well for the Democrats, or they would have continued.

Candidate Donald Trump promised to disrupt the status quo of the federal government as usual. It seems appropriate that one year into his presidency, we got a serious disruption. The Grassroots aren’t looking at this as the ineptitude of “the Deal Maker”; they’re looking at it as a promise kept. Let’s see if members of Congress can keep their own promises and actually get things done between now and February 8.

Mark Meckler is the president of Citizens for Self-Governance, founder of the Convention of States Project, and a leading constitutional grassroots activist.