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The Filibuster: Discuss

chicago dyke's picture

Despite being a blogger who blogs about politics, I actually know more about Sumerian grammar than I do about American political history, and I readily admit that. So this comment by reader Joe really intrigued me:

By the way, I think the filibuster issue is one of Corrente's major blind spots. I don't think the degree to which filibuster abuse has completely altered our system of governance can be overemphasized.

Do you agree, Corrente? If so, why? If not, why not? Is the 'debate' about 'what (Democrats) [or] (Republicans) can/should/would do with the filibuster' important, or distraction?

Yes, you know I think it's all mostly Kabuki and out of our hands at this point. And you can probably guess that imho, 99% of Americans are not and will never be excited or interested in the arcana of Senate procedure. Still, sometimes behind the scenes changes can be revolutionary, and there's certainly a great deal of (if somewhat behind the scenes) discussion about the filibuster among the 'creative class.'

What do you think about Joe's observation, and the filibuster in general? Should it be kept? Eliminated? Is it a major tool with which corporations and the evil have ruined democracy here? Is it an essential modern tool of democracy? Something else? This is the kind of conversation that almost only ever will happen at (the very few) blogs like Corrente, and nowhere else, so I implore you to contribute, even if it's only something like what I have to say, which is "I don't know."

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jumpjet's picture
Submitted by jumpjet on

The filibuster shouldn't have mattered back when the Democrats had 60 Senate seats. In that sense, it is a distraction; it shifts blame away from their utter failure to pass legislation to the benefit of the American people.

But I've nevertheless begun to come around to the idea that the filibuster, and the requirements for 60-vote cloture, should be removed. The filibuster is a big part of what makes the Senate more conservative than the House. The House, even filled with as many rightists as the Senate, has always passed the more radical legislation of the two houses of Congress, and a large part of that is because the House can pass bills with a simple majority. Gaining greater consensus always requires concessions to more conservatively minded individuals.

And as I said in the other thread, I think a filibuster-free Senate could help emerging political parties as well. It's a lot easier to cobble together 51 votes than it is to get 60. Smaller political parties become more able to effect change the fewer votes are needed- that's just simple math. There are bills that could be passed by some new party Senators combined with the more leftist Democrats that wouldn't be passed by the whole of the Democratic caucus- and those bills are easier to pass if they only need a simple majority.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

Since it gives wildly disproportionate representation to historically conservative states.

Also, the next time the Republicans have a Senate majority, perhaps a few people might wonder if the filibuster is such an evil thing, after all.

Joe's picture
Submitted by Joe on

@C.D. - thanks for writing a post about this.

@VastLeft - I disagree. The electoral college does give disproportionate representation to small conservative states. But you said "wildly disproportionate." I wouldn't have used the word "wildly". It's really not *that* disproportionate. And certainly no where NEAR as ridiculous as what the filibuster does. With the filibuster, 21 states worth of senators basically have veto power over the will of the other 29 states. The population of the least populated 21 states is about 38 million. The rest of the states have about 266 million people. So, in theory, 38 million people have the power to thwart the will of 266 million people. Now I realize I'm using an extreme example to illustrate the point, so let me get a little more realistic. Consider our CURRENT U.S. Senate. Let us say that each senator represents half of the population of his/her state. And let us also count Bernie Sanders as a Democrat, and, because I'm extremely generous, Joe Lieberman as one too.

That gives us 59 Democrats representing 192 million people, and 41 Republicans representing 112 million.

So in terms of population, 37% of the public is able to thwart the will of 63% of the public. That's the situation RIGHT NOW.

@Jumpjet -You said, "The filibuster is a big part of what makes the Senate more conservative than the House."

That's true but I think it is an enormous understatement.

A big part of what makes the Senate "more conservative than the House" is the way the senate was DESIGNED at the very BEGINNING. (e.g. States with a million people, like R.I., have the same representation as ones with 36 million people, like CA.)

I'm BARELY comfortable with THAT degree of conservatism.

But when you go ahead and change the senate to require SUPERMAJORITIES to get anything passed, you take what was already a conservative institution and you raise it to the 3rd power.

The Senate *CAN NOT* get anything passed of any use to this society. It would hardly matter at all if we had a president who was an actual leader rather than a pathetic coward. NOTHING gets through this institution that will actually help regular citizens.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

The filibuster frenzy is the latest distraction from coming to terms with how shitty "our" party is and how shitty "our" "progressive" infrastructure is.

As long as access bloggers and party-line advocacy orgs can keep us salivating over their latest rallying cry, we won't fuss too much about the low priority that genuine leftwing policy gets from them.

"We" got played on Obama. "We" got played on "public option." And we're getting played if we think the filibuster is what separates us from good government.

Joe's picture
Submitted by Joe on

Guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. Saying that the filibuster is a distraction from the other problems you mention is like saying the problems in Iraq are a distraction from the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They're ALL big problems. You've got to spend time on *each* of them.

You think genuine left wing policy will spontaneously materialize if, tomorrow, the Democratic Party disappears and a wonderful non-corrupt genuinely Leftist 3rd Party becomes nationally competitive?

No, not going to happen. Give them 59 senate seats tomorrow. And guess how much of their legislation is going to pass through the Senate. None.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

Filibustermania, especially as the balance of power shifts toward the Republicans is a low-priority item that's sucking up progressive energies. Far more important is reclaiming our reality-based mojo -- and learning how we lost it, so we don't go that way again, opening our eyes to the rot that pervades so-called leftist infrastructure (Dem party, "prog" blogs and advocacy groups, and the SCLM) -- and keeping our eye on the policy ball (hint: a Nobel Peace Prize and two "surges" in Afghanistan ain't it, a meaningless "public option" ain't it).

Sure, in a Senate with 50+ unbought lefties, it would be swell to have no filibuster. Are we expecting such an assemblage anytime soon?

Submitted by lambert on

I don't recall anybody posing the thesis that a third party would spontaneously materialize, so I guess I'm a little unclear on whose argument on this thread could possibly have earned that characterization.

What is clear to me is that the opportunity cost of focusing on fixing legacy party dysfunction (among those being the undefined "abuse" of the filibuster) is. precisely, creating, or strengthening, alternatives to them -- among them, possibly, a third party.

Joe's picture
Submitted by Joe on

All politicians are "bought" to some degree. The key word is "degree". If all senators were influenced by corporate dollars but only to a very *small* degree, I'd be a happy citizen, because good and fairly clean legislation would be getting passed.

I submit to you this: the Senators who are bought to the LARGEST degree are the extra 10 needed to overcome the filibuster.

You take the power away from those assholes, you end up with a Senate which will be, in my opinion, A LOT more progressive.

gizzardboy's picture
Submitted by gizzardboy on

The way I see it, all that has happened time after time, is that when 60 votes in the Senate have not been whipped up, there is a threat of a filibuster which has been made. The Dem's milque-toast leader, Harry Reid, caves and the issue is dropped. No filibuster takes place.

It seems to me, that the real problem is not that the filibuster can be threatened, but that the party in power does not frame the questions correctly. They should be framed in such a way that the party threatening the filibuster would look foolish, obstructionist and against popular public sentiment if they were to filibuster. And by filibuster, I mean the old fashion Jimmy Stewart, up all night kind of filibuster. What could be more damaging to the Republicans than trying to stop something like drug reimportation from Canada, or Medicare being able to negotiate for drug prices or health benefits for the people who searched for bodies through the 9-11 debris? The way things like this do not get enacted, is that they are bargained away behind closed doors by those on the take (both D's & R's). Nobody has to actually show their hand to the public when the bluff is all it takes to stop something from coming to a vote.

If they really wanted to get something done, they could frame the question correctly and have the spine to force a showdown. It might take three or four extended sessions where Senators had to bring their cots, but it would eventually reduce the threat to a great degree. Could the Senate afford the time? I believe the end result would be more than worth it, and would actually speed things up. The real question is whether they really want to take principled stands.

Aeryl's picture
Submitted by Aeryl on

I'm in totally agreement with lambert and vast on this, that the current push is nothing more than kabuki, and also agree that with a hypothetical progressive majority in the Senate, the filibuster would be a nice thing to get rid of.

At the same time, any politician with a lick of sense, especially if they were amongst the current set trying to push an "Obstructionist Republicans" meme, would understand that making Republicans obstruct on live TV would be a smart idea.

But they don't do that, so you really have to question their motivations.

Submitted by lambert on

... doesn't mean I have a blind spot about kabuki plays. In fact, I have a great appreciation for kabuki, as any political blogger must.

But it's opportunity cost, like everything else. However, I do note the curious construction "filibuster abuse." I don't know what that means, but what I do know is that there hasn't really been any filibustering at all:

HARRY REID: Mitch, I'd like to bring that bill to the floor.

MITCH McCONNELL: I'm gonna have to filibuster that one, Harry.

REID [rolls over on belly, widdles] Oh, OK.

McCONNELL: Thanks, Harry.

Meaning, a filibuster is when a Senator takes the floor and reads from the King James bible for 32 hours or whatever while pissing into a plastic bag, and the rest of the Senate sleeps on cots, or their chairs, while waiting for a procedural opening. Right now, all McConnnell does is threaten a fililbuster, and Reid never calls his bluff.

Kabuki. If there's any "abuse" going on, the Ds are thoroughly complicit in it.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

for a year and a half now. But I've always been against it because it increases the power of the minority to thwart changes the majority wants to make. We have a lot of mechanisms built into the original constitution to protect against the tyranny of a legislative majority, the filibuster isn't in the constitution, and it introduces a further obstacle to the legislative process. In the present context it gives power to Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, Scottt Brown, Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Arlen Specter, and a few others that would not have without it.

Yes, if it did not exist we would still have difficulties with Democratic votes 45-50 which may be only somewhat less conservative than the ones I've mentioned. Still, I think it has to be admitted that the chances of getting a bigger and better stimulus, a better credit card reform bill, a better finreg bill, and a better hcr would have been much greater if progressives had been bargaining with votes 45-50, than with votes 56 - 60.

To put a finer point on this, it's clear to me that the filibuster may have cost millions of jobs in 2009 and 2010. Since I don't think it's worth even one American job, I'm all for its elimination. I also believe it has cost the lives of thousands of people uncovered by insurance since say June 2009, when a better hcr bill might have been passed if there had been no filibuster. Since I don't think it's worth one American life, again, I'm all for its elimination.

Finally, I know liberal partisans of the filibuster play the fear card and say someday we'll need it to block the conservatives. But 1) liberals are supposed to believe in the people and the rule of the majority, and I just don't think it's very consistent to say, except in the legislative process in the US Senate; and 2) I don't think it will be there the next time liberals need it anyway, because the Republicans almost got rid of it on 2005 when they came close to exercising the nuclear option to get Bush's appointment passed a Democratic filibuster.

So, I think they would not hesitate to get rid of it if they got the majority in the Senate anytime soon. This batch of Republicans has no respect for Senate traditions. The Democrats can either strike first and get at least some benefit of getting rid of the filibuster when they still have the majority or they will be steamrollered anyway when they no longer have it.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

for killing the filibuster. I just recall how horrified progressives were over the nuclear option talk when the other party had the majority, and I think the topic has become, for many, a distraction from coming to grips with root causes.

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

I guess I don't mind the filibuster since I've yet to see a real one carried out. What I see is the use of the "threat" to table any legislation not deemed appropriate to the Village. Once I see Senators in diapers reading Lady Gaga lyrics on the floor of the Senate maybe I'll change my mind. Until then, I want a filibuster foe to show me where the majority party made a group of Senators actually carry out a filibuster. Otherwise, I see it as absurd to rail against something that *really* isn't used. It seems much more a convenient tool of the legacy parties to continue their two-step.

I personally don't mind vigorous, occasionally heated debate when it comes to politics. It shows that there is an issue worth fighting for. Maybe, just maybe, if we had a few real filibusters more people would understand the issues at stake.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

In fact, I was very disappointed when Frist didn't go through with it. He would have done us all a big favor.

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

But if the legislators didn't find it a useful ploy it would be gone. Therefore, I don't think ending it would bring about a big change, especially at first, and by the time it did bring about much change, the legislators would have ginned up other ways to do what they want. So I'd say ending the filibuster is a secondary procedural goal, not a major focus. Our major focus ought to be on building a decent society.

Requiring a super-majority gridlocks governance. Then both sides can claim that it's the other side that is the problem ("They have the majority", "No, they have the power to obstruct"). And then legislators can set up a procedural vote that pretty much assures the outcome they want, but allows them to vote the other way on the substantive bill, which vote they will highlight to constituents. The political junkies understand what happened, but most citizens don't.