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Of Worms and Traditions

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Much as I believe in sticking with tradition because it usually reflects what works (or has worked historically) and think the Republicans will regret eliminating the filibuster if they do it, I find myself in agreement with Peter J. Wallison writing in this morning’s Wall Street Journal when he asks “Can there be any doubt that Democrats will eliminate the filibuster on legislation when they next control the Senate and the White House?” Harry Reid started this ball rolling by busting the filibuster for presidential judicial nominees back when he ran the Senate in the Obama years and Republicans have already felt obliged to extend that move, when Democrats chose to filibuster Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, a first in Senate history. Faced with a choice of surrendering the possibility of placing a conservative on the court, nominated by a conservative president, Republicans chose to do what Reid had done to get his way. Now we’re facing the same question only this time regarding pending legislation and not just senatorial approvals. One really has to wonder if the filibuster in any form is long for this world at this point.

As Wallison points out, it’s hard to argue that the next time Democrats have the power and feel the need to blow up the last vestiges of the filibuster to get their way, they won’t. Harry Reid has set the precedent and the filibuster as a senatorial tradition is now on shaky ground. Republican refusal to finally end it completely, however high-minded or optimistic on Republicans’ part, would probably end as another Republican mistake.

Thanks to Reid, the Democrats have shown just how ruthless they can be to get their way, and a hoary senatorial tradition from the nineteenth century is not a constitutional requirement. Once the dam has burst, it’s hard to hold the waters back.

Democrats, both in the Reid decision and their later decision to apply a filibuster to a Supreme Court nominee, have made plain that they no longer even pretend to respect tradition. Progressivism, the philosophy that has overtaken the Democratic Party, prefers, in fact, to dispense with it. But when one side is prepared to break the rules in a game, there’s no reason for the other to forebear. The rules only work when both sides play by them.

So there’s a very strong argument for Republicans to do what Trump urged in a recent tweet (however annoying that mode of communication may be) and ditch the filibuster entirely if that’s the cost they need to pay to get their agenda through. Ending the filibuster may not be collegial. It may not be respectful of tradition, not  Marquis of Queensbury. But it is reality.

If Republicans don’t pass their agenda when they have a chance to do so, they are going to go down, maybe as soon as the 2018 congressional elections. If they can’t show they can govern and that their ideas work, they will lose the support of voters who sent them to Washington — and their chance to show Americans generally that Republican ideas are good for the country. They won a broad mandate in 2016, but it was premised on delivering the goods their voters wanted. If they can’t do that, what good are they?

It would probably be better if the filibuster were left alone but it hasn’t been, thanks to a willful Harry Reid during the Obama years. Combined with the Democrats’ recent decision to play the filibuster card against Trump’s recent Supreme Court nominee, the betting has to be that Democrats will do whatever they think it takes when next the electoral worm turns, as it inevitably will, traditions be damned. If Republicans don’t move the needle while it’s in their power to do so, that worm is likely to turn much sooner than it otherwise would have.

About Stuart W. Mirsky

Stuart W. Mirsky, a former New York City official who last served as Assistant Commissioner for Operations in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before retiring in 2002, wrote a column, "The Rockaway Irregular," for The Wave, a south Queens based weekly, for more than a decade (until Hurricane Sandy changed the equation). He is an original founder of the Rockaway Republicans, one of the most active Republican groups in southern Queens, and author of a number of books, including The King of Vinland's Saga, an historical novel of the Norse in 11th century North America, A Raft on the River, a memoir of Holocaust survival, and Choice and Action, a work of contemporary philosophy addressing the implications of relativism and nihilism for our moral beliefs.

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