The Magazine

Reid v. Madison

Dec 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 15 • By JAY COST
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But the bitter must be taken with the better—and in this instance, it is worth remembering that, just as the left has captured the Democratic party, so also has the Democratic party captured the left. This means that liberals, once opposed to the patronage-style politics that has characterized the Democratic party virtually since its founding, have since become the masters of it. For every noble, high-purposed program that liberals wish to implement but cannot because of the filibuster, there is at least one naked payoff to a client group that is similarly stymied. So while liberals might bemoan that the “public option” (truly a public-spirited piece of legislation if ever there was one, they would argue!) was dropped because of the filibuster, so, too, was “card check” (a crass payoff to the unions, if ever there was one!).

In other words, one might disagree with the methods by which our governmental structure seeks to “break and control the violence of faction,” as Madison put it, but one cannot deny that such violence should be broken and controlled. The filibuster manages to do this. Electoral victors should be allowed to govern—that is at the very heart of American republicanism—but they should not be allowed to do so simply at the expense of the losers. The filibuster keeps them from doing that.

Reid’s reforms stop short of eliminating the filibuster altogether, but they arguably do something worse. Another Senate practice that checks ambitious but narrow majorities from railroading minorities is the principle that any rule changes must receive the support of two-thirds of the chamber. Reid’s reforms, if they go into effect, will only do so by severely undermining that concept. In the future it will be easier for a majority not only to do away with the filibuster, but to redesign the Senate as it sees fit.

Reid’s ambitions are reducible to a simple fact: The Democratic party’s electoral coalition is too narrow for its ideological ambitions. Liberal Democrats know full well they have no hope of obtaining a filibuster-proof majority in the upper chamber, even though they enjoyed exactly that in decades gone by. The reason? Their program is now too narrow—playing factions off against each other, and ultimately governing for Democratic-voting groups at the expense of others. Such a platform has no hope of obtaining the necessary votes under the current rules of our government, hence Reid’s crass attempts to change them.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is right to oppose Reid, and Madisonians of both parties should hope he succeeds.



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