When Republicans defend the filibuster, they tend to talk about “minority rights” (Ironic!). Democrats did that in 2005, but now the popular pro-filibuster line among that party is that it’s a venerable tradition that needs to be preserved because of, well, its venerability, I suppose.
But why take them at their word when we can look at the structural incentives that might compel a Democrat to block reform? For example, others (including a few Democratic Senators) have already noted that Democrats are bound to be in the minority again eventually, and they’d probably like to be able to filibuster stuff when that happens. But I think there’s another incentive pushing resistance as well: the new 60-vote minimum to get anything done is a really convenient excuse for getting nothing done.
Legislators, after all, have a certain problem when running for reelection that members of the executive branch don’t: their voting records. If you’re taking on a Senator in an election, then it’s a time-honored tradition to pluck some vote that can be spun to look bad from out of the archives and hammer it over and over again. It gets even worse for Senators with presidential ambitions (Look at how the Bush administration cornered John Kerry into giving the now-infamous “voted for it before I voted against it” explanation).
So the trick is to have as slim a voting record as possible. Hell, it worked for Barack Obama; the fact that his school transcript was relatively anemic compared to those of upperclassmen John and Hillary actually worked in his favor.
But now Obama is president, and he has an agenda he wants to get passed. In fact, he wants members of the Senate Democratic caucus to vote for some pretty high-profile, controversial stuff, like health care reform and climate change. And with legislation that huge, there’s always going to be something that Republicans and primary challengers can pick out of the footnotes to use as a cudgel.
Reticent Democrats must be slaughtering lambs for the gods, then, for giving them this Senate rule that conveniently makes it insanely difficult to pass a lot of stuff even with their votes. Because when a bill’s that vulnerable, there’s no chance it will make it to the floor in an even semi-recognizable form. Nobody will have to choose whether to vote for or against it.
Of course, any Democrat who’s decided to hide behind the filibuster has made a grievous miscalculation, because the inability of the Democratic Party to get anything at all done is depressing their base’s enthusiasm and even pissing off a lot of independents. But the chain of reasoning that led us here might, along with a healthy dose of Democratic myopia, explain why some members of the caucus are opposed to rules changes that would enable them to do their jobs.