Filibuster Ax

Senate Democrats Just Took Us a Step Closer to the Imperial Presidency

Why would the Democrats, who never seem to stop worrying about overweening presidential control, roll back the filibuster—and hand their own power to Obama? They’ll be sorry, and soon.

12.01.13 11:45 AM ET

I’m one of those neocons you used to hear so much about. I want a powerful presidency, able to project American power effectively. My bias is that Congress tends to be parochial, irresponsible, and self-interested. Worse, it’s dangerously easy for Congress to be captured by a minority of a minority of a minority: the Tea Party of today; the ultra-liberal Democrats of the mid-1970s. Under the theory of the Constitution, Congress passes laws and adopts budgets, while the Executive enforces laws and follows budgets. But recent Congresses have stumbled at law-making. The budgeting process has collapsed altogether. Instead, Congress devotes more and more of its energy to blocking Executive appointments and obstructing Executive functions. So that’s why I welcome curtailment of the filibuster. But what I’m left wondering is why the people who forced through the curtailment welcomed it.

The new Senate rules appear to tilt the balance of institutional power in favor of the Senate majority, which has been Democratic since 2007 and was Republican for 18 of the 26 years between 1981 and 2007. But the true winner is the Executive, not the Senate majority. Senators in the majority have relished the power to deny a president a vote on a nominee—and have often used it, too. In 1997, President Clinton nominated former Massachusetts governor William Weld, a Republican, as ambassador to Mexico. It was a majority senator, Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms, who barred his fellow Republican’s nomination from ever reaching the Senate floor.

From here on, presidential appointees to the Executive branch will get their up-or-down vote. So will presidential appointees to the appellate bench. Senators of both parties have lost a power they once used to extract favors and settle scores.

Now here’s the quirk. It seems like only yesterday—it was only yesterday—when it was a liberal shibboleth to worry about the overweening and imperial presidency. From Vietnam to the NSA leaks, they mistrusted presidents as invaders of rights and invaders of countries. It was liberals who objected to strong Executive control over the budget. The Office of Management and  Budget got itself so disliked for its discipline on congressional spending initiatives that Ralph Nader’s organization founded a purpose-built group, OMB Watch, to monitor and protest the agency’s work. (OMB Watch was renamed and repurposed just this year.) Earlier on, it was liberal Democrats who broke the former tight control of House chairmen over their committees, and the tight control of the two super-committees, Rules and Ways and Means, over the lesser committees. For 40 years, the liberal version of institutional reform meant strengthening Congress against the president and the backbenchers in Congress against congressional leaders.

We’re all familiar with the rule “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Liberals favored restraint in the 1930s, judicial activism in the 1960s, restraint again in the 2000s, and—very likely—they will rediscover activism as the courts veer leftward after 2020.

But what’s happened with Executive power is weirder than a mere rotation in the respective chances of Rs and Ds in presidential elections. There are strong substantive reasons why you’d expect modern conservatives to favor the Executive and modern liberals to mistrust it. The Executive commands the war-making power of the American state. Intelligence agencies answer to the Executive, and the Executive is in turn powerfully shaped by its relationship with those agencies. The Executive is elected in broad national elections in which discrete and insular minorities carry less weight.

It is the Executive that is held responsible when budgets don’t balance, for the stability of the currency, for the performance of the American economy. The presidency makes cautious even the most ambitious reformers.

It’s not a coincidence that—with only very partial exception of Barack Obama—none of the presidents elected since 1945 has enjoyed during his time in office anything like the popularity among political liberals that Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush enjoyed among conservatives during theirs.

So it’s all in all a real surprise that it should be Senate Democrats who struck this blow for the Hamiltonian conception of the presidency—and against their own personal power. I’m guessing they’ll be sorry, and sooner than they think.