When Republicans take control of the Senate in January, should they revive the judicial filibuster that Democrats instituted in 2003 when George W. Bush was president, but ended last November when Republicans were filibustering Obama nominees? That heads-I-win-tails-you-lose question probably answers itself, but the background is a bit more complicated.
In fact, in a post I rushed into print yesterday morning I mangled some elementary filibuster facts, which I partially corrected late in the day after a reader kindly alerted me to the error. I’m tempted to say that an impostor was writing under my name, but the better explanation perhaps is too little sleep from following overnight election returns. In any event, it turns out that Harry Reid, having gone “nuclear” by ending the judicial filibuster a year ago is in no worse shape going into the next two years, as I’d initially implied, than he would have been had he kept it in place. It’s after that, if there’s a Republican president, that he’ll no longer have the filibuster at hand.
So what’s going on here? Let’s start at the beginning. Article I, section 5 of the Constitution says that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” As students of the subject know, those rules can be arcane. And they change, about which there are also rules. The filibuster is a case in point. It’s nowhere in the Constitution, and it’s changed over the years. On the merits, a good case can be made on either side of the practice. In general, it can keep bad (or good) laws from being enacted—or bad (or good) laws from being removed. In the abstract, therefore, it’s a wash. Empirically, it depends on the history of its use—and where you sit.