All glory is fleeting.
Ancient Romans understood this. That’s why a slave was required to stand next to a conquering general as he was paraded through the streets of Rome, whispering this wisdom constantly in his ear.
You would think members of the U.S. Senate would understand as much.
When it comes to efforts to reform filibuster rules, the majority should always try to imagine itself living under those reforms as the minority party. Few things are more certain than that political fortunes will change in Washington. It may not happen in two years or even in 10, but it will happen.
Senate President Harry Reid has said he will put filibuster reform on the agenda when the new Senate convenes in January. There is no denying that filibusters have been invoked more in recent years than ever before — a symptom of the ideological divisions in the country.
Note that Reid wants to reform this tactic, not eliminate it. The reforms include possibly requiring senators to actually talk their way through a filibuster, the way they once did.
If you have to stay up all night reading from the phone book in front of C-SPAN cameras, it might weaken the resolve of a minority trying to stop an appointment or some lesser piece of legislation.
Another reform would eliminate the filibuster on the motion to proceed. This means a bill could be opened to debate before a filibuster could happen, but Republicans say they do this because Reid has refused to let them propose amendments to bills.
I find this all very interesting. Not too long ago, in 2005, Republicans controlled the Senate and were annoyed at Democrats who constantly filibustered. They wanted to reform it so that judicial appointments could not be blocked. Cooler heads prevailed, and Republicans today are glad.
Let’s understand one thing: At its most basic level, democracy is about majority rule. But the United States has traditionally tempered this with strong protections for the minority against the tyranny of the majority. The American system is meant to be more inclusive than efficient.
In the Senate, this minority protection hasn’t always been used for noble aims. Democrats from the South used it to delay civil rights legislation for decades.
The Congress that takes control in January will have built-in safeguards against tyranny. The House and Senate will be controlled by different parties. But the Senate confirms appointments and ratifies treaties on its own. It is the most powerful of the two bodies.
At one point, the House had a filibuster rule, as well. That disappeared long ago. But clearly, it would not be unprecedented to monkey with the rule. In 1917, the Senate decided to require a two-thirds vote to end a filibuster. After the civil rights fiasco, the Senate lowered that threshold to three-fifths.
Reid and the Democrats can require actual spoken filibusters and enact other reforms if they wish. That may make them happy for awhile. But as any good Roman general knew, it would be unwise to set any trap they themselves would not enjoy falling into.