Centrism on Filibuster is Extremism

Richard A. ArenbergIn Politico this morning, Richard A. Arenberg wrote an incredibly ignorant, but Serious sounding centrist defense of minority obstruction, Save the filibuster! As I’ve been predicting, the Republican minority in the Senate is refusing to confirm any of the existing DC Federal Circuit Court vacancies. And so Harry Reid is again talking about the so called nuclear option. There is a lot of false equivalence implicit in Arenberg’s argument. His claim is that what the Republicans are doing is terrible but it would be even more terrible if Reid did something about it.

Let’s think about that. I’m sure that Arenberg thinks he is taking the center position, but he is not. He is completely siding with the Republicans on this one. He tut-tuts the Republicans but does not want to do anything to stop them from doing what he claims to be against. And in his mind, there seems to be no amount of misbehavior on the part of Republicans that would justify doing anything. But I suppose that is to be expected; that’s what the professional centrists do.

He counters the argument that a very small percentage of the population can stop any legislation. This is in reference to a claim by Common Cause that only 11% of the population would be necessary to filibuster a bill. Arenberg says that we could look at it from the other side and note that only 17% of the population could be a minority. There are two things wrong with argument. First, the fact that the Senate is a ridiculously undemocratic institution is not an argument for making it even more undemocratic. Second, the Republicans really will destroy the filibuster the moment they get the chance. I don’t see how all the centrists miss this point.

But the core of his argument is that the founding fathers wanted to guard against the “tyranny of the majority.” That’s true, but that has nothing to do with the way the Senate was set up. It was set up that way as a compromise to the smaller states. And even then the disparities were nowhere near as bad as they are today. Now we have states like Wyoming that have total populations that are one-tenth that of reasonable sized cities. California is 66 times the size of Wyoming! And even at the time, the founding fathers were none too keen on how undemocratic the Senate was. And they specifically did not require super-majority support for normal legislation as they did for things like treaties.

Matt Yglesias pointed out that Arenberg completely misunderstands the notion of minority protections. The filibuster is not about minority rights because, as we often see, the Senate minority uses the filibuster to stop minority rights:

Which is to say that making it harder to pass laws simply makes it harder to pass laws. It has nothing in particular to do with majoritarianism or minority interests or anything else. It’s a status quo measure. To the extent that you think the status quo is great, then maybe you love a 60 vote threshold. Maybe you think it should be raised to 65 or 75 or 95… Making it hard to change laws systematically preserves the advantages of whatever groups are advantaged by the status quo.

At this point, I don’t see how anyone can be against filibuster reform for rational reasons. If you really are against democracy—as many conservatives are—then you might support the filibuster. But for people like Arenberg, it is just about being in the perceived center and assuming that however things are is how they ought to be. And that’s just madness: apologetics for the most extreme excesses of the modern Republican Party.

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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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