Pro-“nuclear option”

Nathan Newman has an interesting take on the GOP effort to eliminate the filibuster in the Senate. Noting that some conservative groups like the NRA are actually opposed to Bill Frist’s “nuclear option,” Nathan argues that in the long run, the filibuster is far, far more useful to conservatives than liberals. That seems about right. Many progressive policies—expanding health care, progressive tax reform, environmental protections—are, almost by definition, fairly expansive, and can be easily stopped up in Congress. The current conservative agenda, by contrast, is essentially a dismantling project, and can be done more or less incrementally: erode labor laws here, strike down a few abortion provisions there, slash revenue and create a deficit, chip away at health care spending, etc. etc. It’s pretty clear that Republicans have a structural advantage in the sluggish and veto-heavy Senate. (Indeed, Social Security privatization proves the exception to the rule.)

It’s no coincidence that the only two big eras of progressive gains—the New Deal and the Great Society—came when Democrats had juggernaut-sized and mostly filibuster-proof majorities in Congress. It’s simply impossible to pass drastic reform otherwise, as Bill Clinton discovered in 1994 with his attempt at health care reform, which was indirectly shot down by a Senate filibuster. Meanwhile, as Nathan points out, liberals lose longer-term ideological battle by relying too heavily on obstructionism: “Blocking conservative action through filibusters has short-term gains, but it feeds the long-term cynicism of voters that government cannot accomplish anything.”

Of course, the big catch here is that if Frist does succeed in going nuclear, the GOP will be able to stack the judiciary with a new generation of radical activist judges, most of whom will spend their time rolling back the New Deal economic consensus and returning us to the glory days of Warren G. Harding and Herbert Hoover. That would be a very high price indeed for the loss of the filibuster.