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No More Senate Deals or Gangs, Please

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, center, speaks to reporters following a Senate vote on Capitol Hill, on July 16, 2013

Photograph by Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, center, speaks to reporters following a Senate vote on Capitol Hill, on July 16, 2013

Oh good. The Senate reached a deal. Richard Cordray, nominated almost exactly two years ago to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, received a confirmation vote and passed with support from 63 senators, including 12 Republicans. Two years ago. Before the gridlock-breaking vote, Harry Reid praised John McCain, that perennial gang member without whom there evidently wouldn’t have been a deal. Two years it took. Thank you, senators, for fixing something within two years that has always been within your power to fix.

In that time, Caitlin Halligan, nominated to the D.C. Circuit Court, waited so long for a vote that she asked to be withdrawn. That court alone currently has three vacancies—with one dating to 2005, when John Roberts was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Eight years. Barack Obama was barely even a senator then. The problem is not the minority party, although this particular Senate minority has been especially obstructive. The problem is the Senate and the particular people in a position to make a compromise. Every time you see a Gang of Six or Eight ganging together to get past an impasse, think to yourself: These guys are the problem.

The filibuster is a historical accident. It’s not in the Constitution. It took almost the entire 19th century for a minority to figure out that it even existed. Every couple of decades, an obstreperous minority takes advantage of it, and the majority is compelled to lower the number of votes necessary to override a single senator’s objections and get to an actual vote. It happened in 1917 and again in 1975. Each of these was a wholesale rule change. A minority abused the power, a minority lost the power. (And it’s a power, not a right. There is no right of the Senate minority to filibuster—only the right to win back the Senate.)

Yet in the past decade of increased filibustering of presidential appointees—the Republicans are much worse, but the Democrats did it, too—the Senate has managed only piecemeal deals, complicated agreements among gentlemen to let a few names through the door and behave better in the future.

Really? Richard Cordray confirmed after two years? This is the world’s greatest deliberative body at work? It is not enough. We deserve better. We deserve federal courts that function, not just a couple of executive nominees. And we deserve to be able to vote for a Senate majority and have it pass legislation. The filibuster, whether employed against bills or nominations, doesn’t just empower the minority. It makes every senator’s vote more valuable, and in particular it elevates the needs of exactly those senators who form gangs, the four or five on either side of the political divide. They can congratulate themselves for moving past a filibuster, but it’s exactly the filibuster that gives exactly these 10 senators so much power. Without the filibuster, they’re just 10 lawmakers on the wrong side of an election. With it, they get to be statesmen. Bipartisan. Able to forge compromise.

The filibuster doesn’t protect the rights of the minority. It serves the needs of a handful of people, consistently just to the right or left of what America asked for. The Senate should never have had the filibuster in the first place. It will never happen, but we should expect nothing less than that the Senate give it up entirely. Lord spare us all, please, from the nobility of more compromises like this one.

Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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