It’s virtually a given among liberal elites these days that the filibuster is hobbling good government and it must be eliminated. By “good government,” naturally they mean a larger, more expansive government that can implement liberal policies.

The common narrative is that evil Republicans are stopping liberals from passing good laws that help everybody for self-centered political reasons, rather than out of any real policy disagreements. They’re being aided and abetted by a few well-intentioned but somewhat clueless Democratic senators who are naively clinging to the false allure of bipartisanship in an increasingly partisan world. Without the filibuster, some liberals think they would be able to readily solve all the country’s problems virtually overnight.

On the flip side, conservatives seem terrified that without the filibuster, liberals would simply steamroll over the minority, passing an unparalleled expansion of the federal government. Without the filibuster, liberals would be running amuck, using imaginary problems as an excuse for solutions that conveniently enable the federal government to run roughshod over individual liberties for the sake of the amorphous, and constantly shifting, “greater good.” There would be no stopping them, and pretty soon, the government would have its say over virtually every aspect of our day-to-day lives.

Both of these arguments are easy for everyday voters to understand, as they turn an extremely complex issue into a simple black-and-white battle of competing ideologies. They’re both potentially fatally flawed, if not completely absurd, arguments that have little basis in reality, based on a series of mistaken assumptions. The truth, as usual, is much more complicated than the ideologues would have you believe. The truth is that we really have no idea if the filibuster hampers good government, or if we – that is, the country as a whole – would be better off without it. Since we can’t carry out controlled experiments in political science to test a theory, there’s no way to know if eliminating the filibuster is a good idea until after it’s done.

The filibuster, like the notion of bipartisanship, is simply a legislative strategy, a means to an end. Like bipartisanship, it can lead to good government or bad government; it simply depends on who’s in the majority, what their goals are, and how capable they are.

That in and of itself is why liberals may wish to press the pause button on their quest to eliminate the filibuster: There’s no reason to presume it would have their desired policy outcomes. Even if Democrats were to retain a majority in the House and Senate, it’s a narrow majority. In the smaller U.S. Senate, individual senators will continue to hold enormous influence, with or without the filibuster. All eliminating the filibuster does is shift the magic number for passing legislation from 60 to 51. It won’t make liberal proposals more palatable to moderates, nor will it magically expand the Democrats’ majority overnight.

While the doomsday scenario spun by conservatives may turn out to be correct, as may the happy outcome presumed by liberals, a third possibility exists: Eliminating the filibuster doesn’t change much of anything at all.

Sure, in the short run it would allow Democrats to pass a few more bills, but the minute they lose the majority, those laws could be repealed. We still live in a democracy, after all, and Democrats could certainly lose control of the Senate next year.

If they do, the elimination of the filibuster would make it all too easy for a future Republican majority to simply undo whatever sweeping legislation they pass. It could also make it easier for any future conservative majority to pass its own legislation, making liberals wish they still had the filibuster around. Without the filibuster, legislating would certainly be easier for the majority, but the danger is that it could end up like executive orders: more easily done, but more easily undone as well. In some senses, that’s worse than having a cumbersome legislative process restrained by seemingly antiquated rules.

It’s all too easy to portray the filibuster as the cause of all our problems or as vital to the future of the country, but we have no good reason to believe in either of those theories. If either party were able to simply win more elections, the filibuster wouldn’t be a useful tool. At the end of the day, electing the right people is how you pass the right policies, rather than altering any kind of legislative procedure.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel

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