Megan McArdle Ridiculous Anti-Filibuster-Reform Argument

Megan McArdleMegan McArdle decides to start this morning by arguing in favor of keeping the filibuster just the way it is. It’s really keen, you see. She likes “its broad use against as many laws as the minority likes.” And she would. She’s a conservative. In theory (that is, while liberals are in the White House), conservatives believe in doing as little as possible. What she doesn’t like is what “the Republicans are doing with it against presidential nominees.” But she follows it immediately with a stunning bit of apologetics, “Democrats arguably started it.” And then she drops the issue altogether. The problem is that the only change to the filibuster that the Democrats are set to make is to fix the one problem that she sees. But she says it is too small a problem to risk further erosion of the filibuster.

She next throws out some numbers that as far as I can tell have been ripped straight out of her ass. There is a 0% chance that the Democrats will take back the House in 2014. While the number is certainly not that low, I take the point. But I don’t understand what it has to do with the Senate forbidding the filibuster on executive branch nominees. No one is talking about a full repeal of the filibuster. So who cares? But McArdle is just getting warmed up. She tells us that there is a 70% chance Republicans will control the White House, Senate, and House as of 2017. I don’t even know where she gets that number. The only way you can get that high a chance is if you assume that the Republicans have a 90% chance of winning the White House, Senate, and House. McArdle, of course, doesn’t link to any source for her claim. All I can assume is that it comes from Dick Morris.

She’s using this 70% number to say, “Be afraid Democrats!” The problem is, as I’ve argued just about every time I’ve discussed the filibuster, is that the Republicans will destroy the entire filibuster the moment they have this situation. McArdle, trying to sound like a wise sage says, “Republicans could go nuclear themselves in 2017, you may say. And that’s certainly a risk. But in fact, I think they will be as skittish about it as the Democrats have so far proven.” Well then, there’s nothing to worry about! Megan McArdle, based upon her intimate knowledge of federal level Republicans thinks that they wouldn’t do such a thing. I feel so much better.

Or I did, until I remembered that in 2005, the Republicans were going to limit the filibuster substantially more than the Democrats are now proposing. And the only reason they didn’t was the Gang of 14 made a deal that turned out to mean, “As long as the Democrats never filibuster judicial nominees, the filibuster stays.” And doncha know, as soon as the Republicans were in the minority, the filibuster was being used more than ever but the Gang of 14 quietly disbanded. Funny that!

So McArdle wants us to think that the 2017 Republicans Senate will be less radical than the 2005 Republican Senate. I don’t think that she would be arguing this if things were reversed. I’m not saying that she would necessarily be arguing for filibuster reform. But in 2005, I can’t find her taking a stand on the issue. But it is hard to say, all her archives at The Atlantic seem to have been removed.

McArdle’s main argument is that the “small” advantage the Democrats get from this minor reform of the filibuster is not worth the “large” danger that the Republicans will reform it themselves in retaliation when they are in the position to do so. I’ve already pointed out that it is a near certainty that the Republicans will reform, if not abolish, the filibuster regardless of what the Democrats do now. But the other half of her argument is equally flawed. Given the Republican House, the only way that Obama gets anything done these next three and a half years is through direct executive action and that means he needs this. This small change would have big benefits. And the danger is basically zero.

But how can we take any of McArdle’s argument seriously when she seems to believe that the Republicans are overwhelmingly favored to hold the White House, Senate, and House in 2017? That’s the kind of thing you say when your argument is more based on panic than analysis.

Update (12 July 2013 10:25 am)

McArdle has another article where she defends her 70% estimate. Basically, she argues that she thinks this because she thinks this. She rightly points out the the House and White House are not independent variables (she doesn’t put it that way, of course). But she thinks the Republicans have a 75% chance to win the White House because Hillary Clinton is old. But even under the best of assumptions, that would put the chance of them winning all three at much less than 70%. I’m always intrigued to see how otherwise smart people deal with statistics. They seem to think it is like alchemy and they can do anything they want. My advice to McArdle: in the future stay away from statistics; you don’t get it.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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