Imagine, for a moment, what 2009 would have looked like if the Senate’s Democratic supermajority showed up for its first day of work and immediately nuked the filibuster.
In such a world, the White House didn’t have to beg Republican senators for the votes it needed to enact President Barack Obama’s stimulus package. Though Democrats eventually achieved a 60-vote supermajority in the 111th Congress, it was only after Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties and after Minnesota Sen. Al Franken prevailed in a protracted electoral recount. The result was a watered-down bill short $110 billion in stimulus that three Republicans demanded as the price of their vote.
Indeed, in the world without a filibuster, the White House also could have ignored conservative Senate Democrats whose desire to fix the economy was tempered by their fear of deficits. The result would have been a stronger economy in 2010 that could have mitigated Democratic losses in that year’s elections.
In a world without the filibuster, conservative Senate Democrats also could have been sidelined during the Obamacare negotiations. The result likely would have been something more similar to the House health care bill, which included more generous subsidies, a larger Medicaid expansion, and a “public option” that would have allowed many Americans to opt into a publicly owned health insurer.
In the world without a filibuster, Obama could have filled the federal courts with lions of the civil rights, criminal defense, poverty, and consumer protection bars. If the economy continued to struggle into 2010, Congress could have enacted a second stimulus bill and potentially saved the Democratic House majority. Buoyed by additional stimulus, the economy would have been stronger in 2016 — potentially strong enough to give the incumbent party just enough of a bounce to keep President Donald Trump out of the White House.
But of course, the idea that Senate Democrats would have removed the biggest roadblock to democratic governance in 2009 is a fantasy. Less than four years before Obama took office, several Senate Democrats capitulated to the Bush White House’s demand to confirm three very conservative judges in order to prevent filibuster reform from happening in 2005. Around the same time, many liberal operatives launched misguided and, at times, ridiculous campaigns to save the filibuster — such as an ad campaign “in which an animated character, Phil A. Buster, asks viewers to help ‘save checks and balances.’”
There simply wasn’t a meaningful call for filibuster reform within the Democratic Party in 2009, and there wouldn’t be one until Democrats spent more than a year discovering just how effectively the Republican minority could wield the filibuster to sabotage their agenda.
Flash forward 10 years, and no one is creating animated mascots for Senate obstructionism.
To the contrary, as Politico reports, a coalition of 15 left-of-center organizations launched a campaign to push senators to abolish the filibuster. The groups include old guard unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and juggernauts of the newest class of progressive groups, such as Indivisible. As one of their first initiatives, the coalition will “spend six figures on digital and print ads pushing [Sen. Michael] Bennet to support a bill making D.C. a state — and to do so with just 51 Senate votes, bypassing the filibuster.”
This initial move appears to be a warning shot over the bow of other Democratic leaders tempted to oppose procedural reforms that would make the nation more democratic. Bennet, who supported the 2013 filibuster reforms allowing most presidential nominees to be confirmed by a simple majority, has since reversed his position on that vote.
He also argued, implausibly, that if Democrats didn’t attempt to filibuster Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court — thus leading Senate Republicans to change the rules to allow Supreme Court justices to be confirmed by a simple majority — that Republicans would not have made this rules change during the fight to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The name of the coalition fighting for filibuster reform is “51 for 51,” a reference to the coalition’s twin goals. It seeks to admit the District of Columbia as the 51st state — and to allow the Senate to vote for D.C. statehood with a simple majority of 51 senators.
Senate malapportionment is, if anything, an even greater threat to democracy than the filibuster. The bloc of senators who confirmed both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh represent less than half of the nation. Similarly, the bloc that prevented Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, from receiving a confirmation vote also represented less than half the country.
And it’s going to get worse. By 2040, according to a University of Virginia analysis, about half of the country will live in just eight states — which means 16 senators for one half of America and 84 for the other half. Meanwhile, there is a strong correlation between population density and partisan voting, with less dense areas tending to favor Republicans. That means that Republicans may soon have a permanent supermajority in the Senate regardless of what the voters prefer.
Admitting D.C. as a state will not solve this problem. The Senate is so fundamentally rigged in favor of less populous states that re-balancing it would likely require chopping up large states like California into many smaller states. But permitting the overwhelmingly Democratic voters of the District of Columbia to elect two senators would at least mitigate the unfair advantage Republicans now enjoy in the Senate.
Ultimately, the most important lesson of Obama’s first two years in office is that good ideas, a popular president, and even a crushing electoral victory are not enough to ensure American self-governance. If the next Democratic president hopes to be more than a figurehead, they will need to think in terms of structural reforms that will restore some resemblance between the popular vote and the composition of the United States Senate.
And they will become a failed president if a majority of Senate Democrats are not also committed to these reforms.