Thursday morning, as Senate majority leader Harry Reid was on the floor guiding his caucus through the necessary steps to scrap the sixty-vote threshold on judicial and executive branch nominations, Heritage Action sent out a strongly worded alert. “For Harry Reid and President Obama, this is not about a couple circuit court judges; this is an attempt to remake America to reflect their unworkable and unpopular progressive vision.”
In many senses this is a crazy thing to say; as scholars of the Senate correctly note, Thursday’s maneuver simply returns the body to its constitutional and historic norms, wherein the president is able to effectively staff the executive branch and federal judiciary. The sixty-vote threshold was a relatively recent aberration, wielded to the extreme by the Republican minority in the Senate.
But in practical context, Heritage is actually correct. Filibuster reform is a victory for progressive politics.
Recall that the biggest historical achievement of the filibuster was to delay a federal anti-lynching law and then to delay enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1950s. Today, it’s one of the most powerful tools for conservative politicians: just in recent months, they have used it to dramatically delay or stop a Democratic president from filling crucial posts at a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, designed to protect Americans from rapacious financial companies; to keep seats on the National Labor Relations Board empty; and to prevent the president from appointing judges to the federal bench who can counterbalance the right-wing ideologues placed there by George W. Bush. (Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, who were both reluctant to embrace rules reform, were reportedly finally swayed last month when a Bush-appointed judge on the District of Columbia Appeals Court ruled against the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act as an infringement upon religious liberty.)
In short, the filibuster provided one more pump-brake on the slow but sure recent leftward trend in American politics; it was of utility only to the minority party, which is of course the ossifying, conservative GOP.
After Senate Democrats finally executed the rule change Thursday afternoon, and after Reid and his leadership team held a relatively somber news conference where Reid said it was “not a time to celebrate,” Reid and some of the Senators behind the push for rules reform—Jeff Merkley, Tom Udall, Chuck Schumer and Tom Harkin—met with progressive groups in a room off the Senate chamber. (The Nation and a small handful of reporters were invited to observe.)