Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker offered up an odd promise on Friday, effectively pledging that he will have virtually no legislative accomplishments if he’s elected president.
Sen. Cory Booker: "My colleagues and I, everybody I've talked to, believe the legislative filibuster should stay there, and I will personally resist efforts to get rid of it." https://t.co/A74naRpbX8 pic.twitter.com/kQLLpZs8CA
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) February 1, 2019
Senate rules require a 60-vote supermajority for the lion’s share of legislation — although there is a way to bypass this filibuster rule for most fiscal bills. That means that a President Booker might be able to make changes to America’s tax policy or many of the ways we spend money if the filibuster remains in place, but his entire regulatory agenda would almost certainly be dead on arrival.
A comprehensive voting rights bill that Democratic leaders identified as their top policy proposal would be dead. So would any attempt to expand civil rights of any kind. Or to regulate any industry. Or to strengthen workers’ rights. Or, perhaps most importantly, to rein in a rogue Supreme Court which may spend the next Democratic presidency fabricating nonsense legal doctrines who sole purpose is to enshrine Republican policies into law.
The question Booker needs to ask is whether, should he be elected president in 2020, he wants to spend 2024 campaigning for reelection with no accomplishments whatsoever in a nation that, thanks to the Republican Supreme Court, would have even more conservative policies in place than the ones that existed before Booker took office.
It’s understandable why Booker and many of his fellow Democrats fear a world without a filibuster. The Republican Party morphed into a revanchist movement eager to unwind the welfare state and that is openly hostile to the right to vote. When Republicans control government, the filibuster makes it harder for them to implement an agenda that would repeal most of the twentieth century.
Over the long run, however, supermajority requirements and other such barriers to legislation benefit anti-government parties and make it difficult for parties that pledge to improve people’s lives through good governance to make good on that pledge.
As professors Evelyne Huber, Charles Ragin, and John D. Stephens wrote in the American Journal of Sociology, “those features of constitutions that make it difficult to reach and implement decisions on the basis of narrow majorities — and that, conversely, let minority interests obstruct legislation — will impede far-reaching reforms in social policy.”
“Aspects of constitutional structure that disperse political power and offer multiple points of influence on the making an implementation of policy,” they add, “are inimical to welfare state expansion.”
The best argument for preserving the filibuster is that, if given the chance to legislate freely, Republicans would likely use that power to place a thumb on the electoral scale. National voter ID laws, laws undercutting unions, barriers to voter registration, mandatory voter purges, and similar attacks on democracy would likely become law very quickly.
But here’s the thing — Republicans already control the Supreme Court and the court’s Republican majority is already implementing an aggressive anti-voting rights agenda. Republicans don’t need to control another branch of government to skew elections in their favor, but Democrats won’t be able to push back against anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) judges unless they have the ability to pass legislation.
There’s no guarantee that a filibuster-free Senate can prevent democratic backsliding. Perhaps a recession hits in 2024, driving the Democratic incumbent out of power and giving Republicans a chance to enact nationwide legislation entrenching GOP rule. When one of a nation’s two major parties embrace illiberalism, it is frightfully difficult to maintain liberal democracy in that nation for very long.
But the Democratic Party’s best shot of remaining electorally viable in the long run is to regain control of government, and then enact a sweeping agenda that is popular, that corrects many aspects of our current system that give an unfair advantage to Republicans, and that improves so many voters’ lives that those voters remain loyal Democrats for many years to come.
Think of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose successful New Deal policies entrenched Democrats as the nation’s dominant party for two generations. Democrats’ best chance to have any future whatsoever is to emulate Roosevelt. The alternative is to slouch into irrelevance.