IN 2005, when Barack Obama was still a U.S. senator and George W. Bush was president, Obama vigorously defended the filibuster. He called it a “means of protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority” created by the nation's Founding Fathers.
As president, Obama's view changed. In late 2012, Obama supported revising U.S. Senate rules to limit filibusters. White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer issued a statement declaring, “The president has said many times that the American people are demanding action ... They want to see progress, not partisan delay games.” Pfeiffer complained several bills supported by the Obama administration “weren't even allowed to be debated,” and that judicial nominations and other administration nominees “are routinely forced to wait months for an up-or-down vote.”
The administration took a “that was then, this is now” attitude toward the clear contradiction in Obama's two stances, just as they did regarding his about-face on gay marriage, the use of military drones and domestic surveillance. Now, the president has reversed course on the filibuster yet again.
Last week, the Republican-controlled Texas Senate brought up a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require doctors at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles, and require that abortions be performed at surgical centers. Under that last provision, only five of Texas' 42 abortion clinics could remain in operation unless upgrades were made.
Naturally, the bill drew heated opposition from those supporting abortion, including Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who spent much of a day filibustering the bill. She ultimately succeeded in preventing action before a midnight deadline. Through his official Twitter account, Obama noted Davis' filibuster, declaring, “Something special is happening in Austin tonight.”
So, based on Obama's own words and his spokesman's past statements, should we conclude Obama now thinks that it's “special” when lawmakers engage in “partisan delay games”?
Davis' filibuster not only affected the abortion bill, but also prevented action on other measures. One bill she indirectly killed would have funded major transportation projects. Another would have revised Texas law to conform with a U.S. Supreme Court decision banning mandatory prison sentences of life without parole for offenders younger than 18.
Obama was praising a Texas lawmaker for engaging in the same tactics he previously derided as obstructionist when filibusters blocked his pet bills, even though Davis' filibuster had the same impact and bottled up unrelated bills likely favored by many.
We won't pretend this surprises us. Obama's motives are as transparent as his ego is boundless. In Obama's world, a filibuster is bad if it impedes legislation favored by liberals, good if it blocks legislation favored by conservatives. Consistency and careful analysis of actual bills' merits play no role in his calculation.
Unlike Obama, we're not amending our view. We've argued before that the U.S. Senate is designed to slow things down and force compromise while keeping the minority from getting steamrolled. It isn't supposed to be a smaller version of the House of Representatives.
Used judiciously, the filibuster can keep flawed or overly partisan legislation bottled up — no matter which party is in power. Should Republicans regain control of the Senate in 2014, we've no doubt the Obama of 2005 will reappear to defend state-level and congressional filibusters.
And he'll pretend that there's no contradiction with the Obama of 2012.