The Inexorable Filibuster Arms Race

The filibuster has become conventional political warfare in the Senate.

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And as The Washington Post's Ezra Klein pointed out this week, the mere fact of the showdown has already changed the dynamic. "The minority's ability to filibuster executive-branch nominees was weakened, even if it wasn't fully eliminated," he wrote Tuesday. "The minority can use the filibuster … But they do so with the express indulgence of the majority." That's not a lesson that will be quickly forgotten. There is an arms race inexorability here: Just as no future (or current) Senate minority is likely to disarm in terms of cutting back filibusters, no future (or current) majority is going to unilaterally renounce a filibuster rules change.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

If anything, the winners of these rules showdowns become more emboldened to return to their particular threat – filibuster reform, in this case, for the Democrats or a completely shut down chamber for the Republicans – in the future. Nothing succeeds like success, after all.

Defenders of the filibuster fret that they do not want the Senate to turn into the House, a chamber which runs on the blunt power of the majority. But if senators don't want their body to become a cozier version of their neighbors' chamber across the Capitol, they should eschew the House mind-set of perpetual partisan warfare.

A legislature can't long function with House tactics and Senate rules. Comity and compromise made the traditional Senate work and without them something about the chamber must give. I'd like it to be the hyperpolarization, but I fear it must be the rules.

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