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Thoughts on Failure to Eliminate the Filibuster

The Senate has become one of the largest obstacles to democratic government in the country. Its structure flies in the face of the concept of "one man, one vote", that is that all voters should count the same. There are small snippets of the East Coast, like Rhode Island, Delaware, and Vermont, that get two Senators whereas very populous neighbors, like New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey get the same number. Clearly, the votes of the citizens of small states count more than those in large ones. But at least someone lives in them. The situation is much worse in the West where you have vast empty expanses, like Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana, and Alaska. They still get two Senators apiece, the same as California and Texas. The small state Senate representation is reminiscent of the "rotten boroughs" that plagued the British Parliament into the 19th century.

Then there are the Senate's rules. The principal abuse involves the filibuster. The filibuster is a parliamentary maneuver to stall and eventually kill legislation by keeping debate on it open, and thus preventing a vote on the legislation itself. It is not part of the Constitution. It is just a Senate rule and could be done away with by simple majority vote if Senators so chose. In its current form, if invoked, it requires 60 votes to end debate and proceed to a final vote. It used to be that Senators engaging in a filibuster had to actually be on the Senate floor talking and a filibuster could, in fact, be talked out. This doesn't happen anymore. The minority party simply forces the majority party to come up with 60 votes on cloture votes to end debate. That's it. They don't have to talk or stay up late or do anything. In other words, the filibuster has become a completely painless way for the minority party to have a veto on all legislation. And under Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this is exactly what Republicans have done since the beginning of the Obama Presidency. Indeed McConnell promised to do this even before the Senate met in new session in January 2009. So it wasn't like the Democrats didn't see this coming.

With Democrats looking to get trounced in the November 2010 mid-term elections, there began to be some talk among Senate Democrats of reforming the filibuster, not doing away with it (which is what needed to be done) but making it less of an absolute block. This was always kabuki, an empty gesture to mollify some elements of the Democratic base. You have to understand that Democratic officeholders, especially Senators, are far more conservative than Democratic voters. They never really mounted any real opposition to Bush, or to Obama too, for that matter, for his continuation and expansion of Bush's policies. They don't want the power to enact progressive legislation. They aren't progressive. If they had the power to end the filibuster, then their subsequent and very public failure to use that power would produce even bigger election losses. Worse, they would be using it to promote an agenda in which they do not believe. It is something of a Hobson's choice, but even though there are costs to appearing ineffective, the filibuster gives Senate Democrats and Democrats in general some small cover to enact a far more conservative agenda that they actually support. In short, the filibuster is a figleaf which allows conservative Democrats to act conservatively. Small as it is they were not going to give it up, and they didn't.

(This is item 234 of my Obama scandals list. The failure of filibuster reform is one of many issues that only seems difficult to explain if good faith is ascribed to the Democrats. On the other hand, if you assume bad faith on their part, their actions become simple and transparent. It is not that they forgot to fight for a principle. It is that they had no intention of fighting for it.)

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Montag's picture
Submitted by Montag on

...with the opening sentence.

"The Senate has always been, by design, one of the largest obstacles to democratic government..."

fixed.