Surprise! Filibuster Reform Didn’t End Democracy As We Know It


In just the last three weeks, the Democratic-led Senate has thwarted two of President Barack Obama’s top nominees, even though the filibuster has effectively been eliminated for non-Supreme Court nominations.

On March 5, the Senate voted down Debo Adegbile, the president’s pick to be Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Seven Democrats defected — citing his chilly relations with the law enforcement community for his long-ago legal advocacy at the NAACP for Mumia Abu Jamal — and the nomination failed to get 50 votes.

Then this week, Democratic aides revealed that the Senate wouldn’t approve Vivek Murthy, Obama’s nominee to be surgeon general. The National Rifle Association came out against him because he has advocated for gun control measures in the past, and a significant chunk of Democrats quickly bolted. A top aide told TPM the party was eight to 10 votes short of the 50 needed to ensure his confirmation. The White House subsequently backed away.

The news serves as a stark contrast to the dire warnings that triggering the filibuster change in November would upend democracy.

“The Democratic majority destroyed the rules of the Senate,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said on the Senate floor. “Now it only takes a majority of those present and voting. This was the most dangerous restructuring of Senate rules since Thomas Jefferson wrote the rules because it creates a perpetual opportunity for what Alexis de Tocqueville called … one of the greatest threats to our democracy, and that is the ‘tyranny of the majority.'”

“Let’s not forget about the raw power at play here,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) just before the filibuster change. “They’re trying to change the rules of the game to get their way.”

Adegbile and Murthy are the first two nominations to be thwarted since Democrats scrapped the 60-vote threshold to move non-Supreme Court nominations. Numerous other nominees — to be executive appointees and judges — have since bypassed filibusters and been confirmed. Republicans have responded by stalling and delaying even nominees that have unanimous support. The White House hastens to point out that Obama is currently seeing his nominees confirmed at about the same rate as Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Legislation, meanwhile, remains subject to the 60-vote threshold.

It increasingly appears that despite the warnings, the 55-member Democratic majority won’t be a rubber stamp for Obama. Many of the same old obstacles exist to confirming nominees: pressure from constituents, election-year considerations and the power of lobbyists like the NRA. Despite its historic nature, the filibuster reform increasingly appears to have been a modest change designed to mitigate the worst elements of a culture of gridlock and obstruction.