As America prepares to enter a period of Republican dominance unknown for nearly 100 years at the state level and with Republicans in full control of the levers of power in Washington for the first time in a decade, Democrats are understandably nervous. In their time in the majority, Democrats deemed bills passed, nuked the filibuster for some executive and judicial appointments, and urged the president to enact through fiat that which the representative branch of government had rejected. Many Democrats feared that Republicans in ascendance would govern as they did. That fear has thus far proven unfounded.
Both the pragmatic left and populist right were concerned that congressional Republicans had developed a case of selective amnesia when it was revealed that the GOP was preparing to reinstate earmarks. Proponents of these budgetary allotments contended that reinstating the practice would restore a key provision favored by the Founders, would create incentives to pass budgets rather than continuing resolutions, and would direct appropriations toward their intended recipients at the state level rather than to federal bureaucracies. Many feared, however, that the populist passions expressed in last week’s election were going ignored, and earmark-inspired scandals would again engulf the GOP as they did in 2005 and 2006.
That concern was, it seems, shared by the newly reaffirmed Speaker of the House. On Wednesday, Paul Ryan slammed the breaks on a vote that would have reinstated earmarks. “We just had a ‘drain the swamp’ election,” Ryan reportedly told his GOP colleagues. “Let’s not just turn around and bring back earmarks two weeks later.” The issue will now be dealt with in the first quarter of 2017 with an open debate over a detailed plan to change the budgetary process. Imagine that! And by then, Democrats may just be on board with such a proposal as its chief aim is to reclaim the authority to direct funding to where Congress—not the president—wants it to go.
And what about the filibuster? Democrats fretted that Republicans in total control of Congress would at some point finish the work they started in 2013 by getting rid of this key bulwark against majoritarian tyranny. That didn’t happen in the 114th Congress, they sighed with relief, but perhaps it would in the 115th. That, too, seems unlikely.
“Are you kidding?” said Utah Senator Orrin Hatch when asked if he supported the abolition of the filibuster entirely. “I’m one of the biggest advocates for the filibuster. It’s the only way to protect the minority, and we’ve been in the minority a lot more than we’ve been in the majority.”
The opinion of the Senate president pro tempore carries a lot of weight, but not quite as much as does that of the upper chamber’s majority leader. Senator Mitch McConnell, too, told reporters recently not to expect changes to the rules that could unduly disenfranchise the Democratic minority. “[O]verreaching after an election, generally speaking, is a mistake,” McConnell said, adding that the Senate is structured to ensure that little gets down without bipartisan consensus.
Will this deferential attitude hold? Will Republican overtures to Democrats dissolve after they encounter the first roadblock on the way toward enacting Donald Trump’s—or, for that matter, Paul Ryan’s—agenda? It remains to be seen. So far, however, in the Lame Duck session, the GOP has not become the despotic institution that Democrats feared. Projection is a powerful thing.