The (Slim) Case for Preserving the Filibuster

A number of progressive scribes have recently restarted the debate over banning, or phasing out, the Senate’s oft-abused filibuster power. (Ezra Klein’s argument for burying the filibuster is found here.)

I’m not about to defend the nauseating eagerness of Republicans to filibuster at a record-breaking pace during the past two years. Nor am I prepared to defend the hypocrisy of now-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) insistence on 60 votes to pass even uncontroversial legislation — with the support of his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid (D-NV) — when four years ago McConnell was ready to deploy the “nuclear option” to eliminate any filibuster threat to Bush judicial nominees with questionable qualifications.

The filibuster’s checkered history as a weapon of pro-segregation southerners seeking to block civil rights bills is also utterly indefensible.

Despite the filibuster’s frequent abused for undemocratic ends, I was initially eager to defend the need to keep it alive in some form. Reducing the number of votes needed to remove a block on legislation, from 60 to 55, is one good idea on the table. After researching the history of meritorious filibusters, however, I was amazed to see how few instances there are of a successful stalling of just-plain-bad legislation.

The Democratic campaign during 2003-05 to block grossly partisan Bush judicial nominees, such as mining industry lawyer William G. Myers, represents the most obvious argument in support of filibustering. Three more examples of worthy filibusters (or threats of such) follow after the jump. If I’ve omitted any compelling reasons to preserve the filibuster, let me know …– A filibuster by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) in 2007 averted the hasty approval of legal amnesty for telecommunications companies that aided the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

– A threatened filibuster by six senators from both parties delayed renewal of the Patriot Act in 2005 and prompted some restrictions — small, but impossible to achieve without the filibuster power — on the sweeping governmental search powers envisioned by that infamous law.

– Wisconsin Sen. Robert LaFollette, an anti-corporate Republican often described as Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D-WI) progenitor in progressivism, held up a public lands bill in 1919 to protest what he viewed as a government sell-off of environmental resources to coal and oil companies.