Ending the filibuster

Sadly, too many moderate/conservative Senate Democrats are too stupid to realize that the filibuster needs to be ended, and that if they don’t do it, the Republicans surely will next time they get the chance.   First, Cohn:

And now the bad news:

Five Senate Democrats have said they will not support a lowering of the 60-vote bar necessary to pass legislation. Another four lawmakers say they are wary about such a change and would be hesitant to support it.

The nine senators wary of or opposed to abolishing the filibuster include some of the caucus’ most conservative members, including Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, and Mark Pryor. And that’s hardly surprising.

When it takes 60 senators to pass all legislation, the Democratic leadership has to rely on these people not only for their votes but also for their cache among Republicans. In other words, Democrats aren’t going to get Charles Grassley to vote for a bill if Max Baucus doesn’t vote for it, too. That’s going to matter even more next year, after the elections, if/when the Democrats lose seats and need Grassley (plus a few others) to move legislation.

Of course, the filibuster empowers individual Democrats at the expense of the party as a whole. If it’s sixty-votes-or-bust for the next few years, Democrats may be done passing major initiatives.

And now, Jon Chait wonderfully lays out the logic of this all:

In reality, the Senate does not function in anything like the idealized way that Senators imagine. It’s the House with a supermajority requirement (except for the budget.) Here’s Jon Tester:

“I think the bigger problem is getting people to work together,” he said. “It’s been 60 for a long, long time. I think we need to look to ourselves more than changing the rules.”

It’s been 60 since 1975. And for the majority of that time, the filibuster was a weapon of strong protest, not a routine supermajority requirement. But the old rare use of the filibuster was an unstable equilibrium. You can’t have a competitive system where one side can use its most powerful weapon anytime it chooses but is expected not to do it that often. If baseball teams were allowed to deploy two extra fielders any time they wanted, but were expected to save the move for moments when they really needed a stop, how long would it take before every team always deployed 11 fielders? [me: love this metaphor]

The rare use of the filibuster survived as long as it did because the legacy of Jim Crow created an odd arrangement where party ties did not correspond to ideology. That era is not going to return. The political environment is competitive and parties are not going to leave a weapon lying on the ground.

That’s why the filibuster’s days are numbered: The majority does have the power to change the rules at the outset of a session. Democrats will make this notion a part of the party litany and demand it of candidates, and eventually the older Senators will be replaced by younger ones. More likely, the Republicans will simply change the rules first. This will happen the next time Republicans gain control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and more than 49 but fewer than 60 Senate seats. The old institutionalist concept of the Senate is mostly dead on the Republican side anyway. Gaining control of the White House and both chambers of Congress simultaneously is pretty hard to do anyway. There’s no way Republicans are going to allow Democrats veto their agenda in such circumstance out of loyalty to a 1970s-era compromise.

I think this is spot-on.  Republicans are simply better at the game of politics.  Democrats are happy to shoot themselves in the foot.  In the modern filibuster era, there’s no way the next 51+ Republican Senate will be willing to govern with one hand tied behind their back.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Ending the filibuster

  1. John says:

    A better argument for ending the filibuster is that it is an arrangement for slowing or stopping the legislative process but yet doesn’t add anything of value. The original system design accounted for the possibility of hasty decision making and gave us a slow, deliberative process without the filibuster. That’s exactly how it works and as we’ve seen it’s still unwieldy, even when 1 party has a supermajority. The point to really keep in mind is that we have a bicameral legislature while many democracies only have 1, yet they somehow seem to get by without revolutions.

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