Going nuclear: Why we need obstruction in the Senate

Thursday afternoon, Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid, finally made use of the so-called “nuclear option” and eliminated the filibuster on judicial nominees.

Majoritarians everywhere rejoice!

This is a pretty easy public relations gambit by Reid and his ilk. After all, the thing that frustrates the American people more than anything about their government is the seemingly pointless lack of anything getting done. Anything which removes roadblocks to action can be expected to be cheered mightily.

There’s only one problem: We need minority obstructionism.

Our legislature is not, and never was, simply a “majority vote” body. This is not a parliament in Europe, or a meeting of the local PTA.  The United States Congress was designed this way intentionally.

When the Senate struck down the rule requiring 60 votes to cut off a filibuster of appeals court judicial nominations, it recklessly jettisoned more than two centuries of Senate precedent. Not just relating to the filibuster, but also in the requirement that major changes to Senate rules require two-thirds support of the body.

That precedent wasn’t just there by accident, or tradition. It had a valid reason for existing.

Majorities are very often wrong. Majorities supported slavery. Majorities supported Jim Crow and institutional racism. Majorities favored — until Pearl Harbor — letting Europe burn and be conquered by Adolf Hitler. Majorities favored the Vietnam War, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Simply having more people share an opinion of something doesn’t make that opinion right, nor does it entitle those with a slightly more popular opinion to disregard any consideration of minority opinions.

The Founders intended for this country to have a healthy rule by the majority, but with the occasional important power given to the minority to obstruct and thwart the agenda of the majority, lest it run roughshod over the legislature. By design.

While I do not support the typical conservative idolatry of the Founders and find it necessary to question just about everything they did, in this case they were on to something.

With few (or no) protections for minority parties in a legislature, there is virtually no reason to have a minority at all. Without some mechanism to force the majority to acknowledge and deal with the wishes of the minority, the majority will simply ignore those minority opinions.

And those minority opinions matter. Millions of people voted for those in the minority in the Senate, and they are entitled to representation, not irrelevance.

Just look at how the House of Representatives operates. Being in the minority there makes you a powerless ghost of a lawmaker — which if you are U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud is also true if your party is in power — relegated to horsetrading pork to maybe give your bill a chance to see the light of day before it is likely killed.

That’s probably why Harry Reid was so opposed to his rights being stolen away from him back in 2005. Back then it was the Republicans in the majority talking about doing away with the filibuster on judicial nominees, and it was Reid who waxed on poetically about the rights of the minority.

The Senate was always designed to be a protection against the more mob-like proclivities of the House. While representatives to Congress were collectively reflective of majority views, the Senate was the detached, sober voice of reason that put a brakes on the often short-sighted, fickle passions contained on the other side of the Capitol.

The House may have a rabid, ideological majority swept to power in an emotional wave election, and as such will send incredibly ideological bills to the Senate to vote on.

The Senate, on the other hand, was designed for consensus and collaboration, made up of different people and requiring stronger majorities to pass things, thereby empowering the minority and forcing the majority to deal with them.

That may be frustrating to watch as a citizen, but it’s an important feature of our government.

In many countries with straight majority vote legislatures, the construction of the national economy can vary wildly from election to election. A socialist comes to power and nationalizes the entire country, followed by a right-wing government that privatizes everything that had been nationalized.

America was designed to be more stable, discerning in its change. At the heart of that was the difference between the House and the Senate, and the need for collaboration between the two viewpoints.

The reality is, the partisan backstabbing and lack of collaborative work in Congress is about the people we send, not the rules they operate by. This won’t change anything, and in the process will have made the Senate into the House.

Which begs the question, if this is how it is going to be, why have a Senate at all?

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.