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The Filibuster and Democracy

When you talk about potentially eliminating the filibuster, liberals have a tendency to quickly bring up the specter of Social Security privatization. That is to say, they have a tendency to quickly bring up an instance in which the filibuster worked, or appeared to work, for them.

But this is a really bad argument. Privatization was not a popular policy that was effectively killed when Republicans couldn't get a couple of Democrats to vote for cloture. It never came up for a vote at all. It never even got out of a committee. It was very unpopular, and wouldn't have gotten 50 votes. It died because the majority opposed it. That's democracy.

Imagine, however, a filibuster-less world. In this world, Republicans managed to persuade every member of their party to vote for an unpopular bill. Well, what happens? Presumably, Democrats run against them in the next election and, as happened in real life, take back Congress. And then they repeal the bill. Or President Obama does it two years later, when he enters office atop a promise to overturn President Bush's veto of the very popular Social Security Privatization Repeal Act of 2007. That too is democracy.

But change the hypothetical a bit. Imagine that Social Security privatization was extremely popular but that Democrats managed to filibuster it to death in a last-ditch demonstration of party unity. That, in a way, is the argument for the filibuster. It could have prevented something bad from happening even if the bad thing had the votes. But that's not a good argument either. After all, if the country wants to privatize Social Security, and it decides to vote for politicians running atop that platform, it should be able to privatize Social Security.

The problem with the filibuster isn't so much that it enables bad outcomes so much as it makes a mockery of the democratic process. The question of the filibuster is not a partisan question and it's not a question of outcomes. The claim for the filibuster is a claim for the preservation of the status quo -- whether that status quo is liberal or conservative -- against the preferences of the majority. Eliminating the filibuster is not a Democratic or a Republican goal. It's a majoritarian goal.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 22, 2009; 2:05 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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Next: Filibustering Is Not the Same as Voting "No."


I think that they should put the filibuster back to what would be useful- a way to extend debate on something that the majority is trying to ram through quickly. So if the minority wants to extend debate on something then it would take 60 votes. But a week later after more debate then the next cloture vote would only take 58. The next week 56. Pick the timeframes or the schedule however you like. I do think that there is legislative value in the minority being able to extend debate and repeatedly point out the negatives of something that they don't want to pass but eventually the vote should go through.

Posted by: spotatl | July 22, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

I don't agree. There are plenty of instances in which the filibuster can and has been used to prevent bad things from happening that were out of the public eye and can often become "unintended" consequences of elections.

Take judicial appointments, for instance. Democrats, during the Bush years, used filibusters to prevent some truly abhorrent people from getting on the federal bench. Now, you could make the argument that Republicans use judicial appointments as rhetoric during campaigns and then they get elected, so maybe the public wants these appointments to go through and, thus, the filibuster shouldn't be used to stop it, but how often do you see candidates taking time to campaign for or against the nomination of one federal judge? Things like that just don't register in our national conversation. The filibuster is certainly abused, but we see some of its benefits on this day, the 60-vote rule prevented a truly hideous gun law from being passed.

It's just harder to repeal something that is already law, so there is a legitimate reason to preserve the filibuster as a way to prevent something really bad from becoming law in the first place. When are we going to get the repeal of the bankruptcy reform bill, or at least the most egregious parts of it? Probably never. (I know the Dems did not filibuster here, but the point is that they could have)

Posted by: smhjr1 | July 22, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

There never was any proposed bill that would have privatized social security, as implied by this post. Instead, Bush proposed that a portion of the surplus between payroll taxes and social security expenditures be privately invested for young workers, as opposed to being immediately spent on other government programs, and then having the federal government write an unfunded IOU to the Social Security Trust Fund.

Posted by: Dellis2 | July 22, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

The American political lexicon appears to have been especially designed to confuse and mislabel. There's a problem when someone has to describe a plea for a better-functioning, more democratic democracy as "not a Democratic goal".

Posted by: albamus | July 22, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

The filibuster is one of the few weapons we have against the grand alliance of the powerful and the stupid. Why do you want mob rule?

Posted by: fallsmeadjc | July 22, 2009 10:34 PM | Report abuse

Your argument presupposes that 51 votes in the Senate = the country wanting to do something. Because of the wildly disproportionate power of the small population states in the Senate, this is not the case. When Democrats used the filibuster under the Bush administration, the minority of Senators usually represented states with a majority of the country's population.

Posted by: exgovgirl | July 22, 2009 11:57 PM | Report abuse

It would be an interesting reform to allow for paygo compliant entitlement changes to allow for cloture on a majority vote. Since the target population of entitlement users is broad, there should be pretty quick political feedback if a bad change is made. On healthcare, for instance, the changes would not be set in stone and could be tweaked. Entitlement reform is a favorite topic for many, and this would make it easier. Also, the Republicans might get 50 votes in the Senate, but they'll never get 60 unless Democrats decide there's no majority that would allow health care reform to be done and we all just give up.

Posted by: windshouter | July 23, 2009 12:55 AM | Report abuse

What you don't model for is when a majority of Senators can cause irreparable harm to a program or to the entire country. Consider Social Security or another intergenerational transfer scheme. If it were underfunded and those who did not sufficiently contribute to it stopped working, a future majority that wishes to rectify the problem couldn't. At least not in a politically acceptable way. Imagine policies that cause all of the experience to flee or retire from federal agencies. Imagine bills that alter the Federal judiciary or that create such large deficits that lawmakers can't simply "fix" them at a later point. Oh wait, you don't have to use your imagination... that's exactly what happened over the last 8 years.

Posted by: GrandArch | July 23, 2009 1:25 PM | Report abuse

This opportunistic argument would be a lot more persuasive if it wasn't so convenient that erstwhile supporters of possible filibusters when the GOP had the majority -- like one Ezra Klein -- now call for its elimination when their preferred party has power. But, besides that, the simple fact is that sometimes the majority -- especially of Congress! -- is wrong. And, for example, there is no hue and cry from the land for a full-scale health-care overhaul, which is what is being couched as mere 'reform'. And, the more Americans learn about it, the less well it smells -- er, sells.

Posted by: TSousley1 | July 24, 2009 10:30 PM | Report abuse

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