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Romney tries to make the case against a majority-rule Senate

Whether he intended to or not, Mitt Romney defended the filibuster by taking aim, not at Democratic governance, but at democratic governance.

The Democratic plan is not a secret. Under the current legislative system, the governing majority will try to pass two voting-rights packages — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — which will fail to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

The Democrats' plan, however, is to use their majority to declare that filibusters should not and cannot apply to voting rights. The party probably doesn't have the votes to pull this off — it would require complete unanimity among disparate Democratic senators — but they're trying anyway.

And that has made Republicans awfully nervous. Take Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, for example, who delivered an impassioned plea yesterday to leave the dysfunctional institution's rules exactly as they are.

"Note that in the federal government, empowerment of the minority is established through only one institution: the Senate. The majority decides in the House; the majority decides in the Supreme Court; and the president, of course, is a majority of one. Only in the Senate does the minority restrain the power of the majority."

Well, sort of. First, it's worth emphasizing that the Senate makes all kinds of exceptions to the filibuster rule. The 60-vote threshold doesn't apply, for example, to budget bills. Or judicial nominees. Or executive branch nominees. Or the War Powers Resolution. Or the Congressional Review Act. Or trade promotion authority. The idea that adding voting rights to this list would be an outrageous affront to our system of government is difficult to take seriously.

Second, it may sound nice to romanticize the Senate's unique qualities, but the fact remains that it was designed to be a majority-rule institution. The right of the minority to engage in spirited debates was protected, but those who created our system of government considered and rejected proposals to require legislative supermajorities.

Romney proceeded to make an even more striking argument:

"Consider how different the Senate would be without the filibuster. Whenever one party replaced the other as majority, tax and spending priorities would change, safety net programs would change, national security policy could change. Cultural issues would careen from one extreme to the other, creating uncertainty and unpredictability for families, for employers, and for our friends abroad."

Right off the bat, there are some policy problems with this pitch. Tax and spending priorities, for example, can be addressed through budget measures that cannot be filibustered. What's more, national security policy routinely shifts between presidential administrations, and the Senate's filibuster rules play a very limited role.

But more important is what Romney is saying, not about Democratic governance, but about democratic governance.

The GOP senator is describing a scenario in which voters elect a president, House, and Senate of the same party, at which point a Senate minority takes steps to prevent the majority from implementing the agenda endorsed by the electorate.

This, of course, is the dysfunctional model we have now. It creates so many legislative chokepoints that both parties struggle to advance their proposals, even when they're popular, and even when voters have ostensibly given them the power to act.

Romney, articulating a classical conservatism, sees merit in a legislative system in which very little happens. Indeed, he apparently finds nobility in the absence of change.

But in a democracy, the will of the people is supposed to matter. If voters put power in the hands of one party, there's an expectation that those elected policymakers will alter the status quo with their ideas.

Romney's pitch, in effect, is that the modern abuses of the Senate's rules are worth celebrating because they prevent "uncertainty and unpredictability." But the unstated subtext is that they also effectively tell voters that they can vote for change, but they won't get it, even if a governing majority wants to deliver on its promises.