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Filibuster Nation

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I don't know whether Harold Meyerson or his editors thought up the term "filibuster nation." But it's a good 'un. It's not just that vocal minorities dominate the workings of the Senate, but they also have a tendency to overwhelm the public debate. How much time have you spent hearing about "Birthers" in recent weeks? Or tea parties? Remember PUMAs?

That's largely a media-driven phenomenon, though. The filibuster, by contrast, is embedded in the Senate's procedures. It can be changed. And it should be.

There are two ways to look at the filibuster. One is that it increases bipartisanship, because it forces the majority to cut deals with the minority. That's the traditional view, and it has proved wrong. The problem is that it's premised on the assumption that the first-best outcome for the minority party is a bipartisan bill. That's not true. The first-best outcome for the minority -- be it Democratic or Republican -- has proved to be no bill. That's how Republicans returned to power in 1994 and how Democrats took back the Congress in 2006.

This makes intuitive sense when you think about it. A minority legislator's first goal is to win reelection. Their second goal is to reenter the majority so they can write the legislation. Giving the ruling party a major accomplishment -- either bipartisan or partisan -- makes both goals harder to achieve. So the minority does not use the filibuster for that purpose. The goal is not a bipartisan bill. It's no bill.

There's a good argument, in fact, that eliminating the filibuster would make the Senate a more, rather than less, bipartisan institution. For many legislative efforts, it would remove the "no bill" outcome from the list of possibilities. That would leave minority legislators with one of two options. Vote against a bill that will pass, or work to change and improve and add priorities to a bill that will pass. You might imagine that if "no bill" is the first-best outcome, then a "no vote" would be the second-best outcome. But that's not always true: Voters aren't very interested in ineffectual opposition. They're interested in what you've "done." That can mean killing a bad bill or improving a successful bill. Voting no, over and over again, isn't a very impressive record in any but the most partisan districts.

Photo credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 5, 2009; 11:32 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Comments

Perhaps NO BILL is better than a flawed bill. The members of congress represent all americans not just the majority party.

Posted by: jmaynes226 | August 5, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

To me the filibuster should be a mechanism to literally extend debate- not postpone a vote forever. It would be a great mechanism for the minority to stop a bad bill from being slammed through before the public could be made fully aware of the consequences of the action. So initially it would take 60 votes to override the filibuster. Then after say 2 weeks then it would only take 58 votes. On and on until a bare majority could bring the bill to a vote but the opposition would have as much time as they wanted to raise awareness and drum up further opposition. At that point if the majority still wants to pass the bill then they can.

Posted by: spotatl | August 5, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

The problem is also closed primaries, which tend to reward Congress members with the most polarized "no bill" stances.

Posted by: jeirvine | August 5, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Moreover, why is "bipartisanship" the be-all to end-all? I understand that we should make sure that the American people are heard on a particular bill, but when one party represents 60% of the Senate (and far more of the actual population of the country), you can achieve that while still having a party-line vote. Bipartisanship is useful when the legislature is closely divided, to make sure that more voices are heard. But when one side already has a huge advantage, more voices are already being heard.

It's like yesterday, NPR was saying Sotomayor is only going to pass along "party lines", with maybe 6 Republicans voting for her. But that's 66 votes, 2/3rds of the Senate. That's a pretty clear ratificaiton of her.

Posted by: colby1983 | August 5, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

I find it endlessly bizarre that the media completely ignores the long-standing and wide movement of people in support of single payer & government-run healthcare because it can't pass and isn't on the table...but then gives saturation coverage to the opponents of single payer & government run healthcare even though it isn't on the table!

If the support for this issue isn't worth covering because it's not reality-based, then why is the opposition to this issue worth covering?

This is a clear case of the media making the news, not reporting it. The completely INSANE allegations (euthanasia?) made by people opposing a "government-run healthcare" bill that does not even exist are presented as though they're real parts of this bill. This, unsurprisingly, makes normal people very nervous that the Democrats are a bunch of cocaine-addled radicals writing radial legislation. (Which is deeply ironic, because every policy wonk left and right agree the biggest problem with this bill is it doesn't go far enough, and it leaves the vast majority of our healthcare system intact).

What's next? Are we going to start covering people who are opposed to an invasion of Canada? Because along with single payer, that's another thing the media agrees we are NOT passing a law to do.

Or do we only treat crazy right-wing conspiracies as hard news?

Posted by: theorajones1 | August 5, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Ezra: There's a good argument, in fact, that eliminating the filibuster would make the Senate a more, rather than less, bipartisan institution. For many legislative efforts, it would remove the "no bill" outcome from the list of possibilities.

I'd temper the complete end of the filibuster with a one or two week 60 vote requirement for actual debate (NOT just sitting on thumbs). No debate, no 60-vote requirement. Make the minority talk or get out of the way.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | August 5, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

People that want to shut down the filibuster, be they Republicans or Democrats, are crazy. Do they not study history? If you recall, Hitler and his Nazi party changed a hell of a lot of German law completely legally and the problem there (and in many other places as well) was that there was not a good structure of legal and procedural checks on political power. The filibuster is a good check on tyranny of the majority, which is far more dangerous than tyranny of the minority, and any study of history will bear this out.

Ezra and others need to get off this whole line of thinking on ending the filibuster which has become their personnal hobby horse. Maybe Ezra is drifting from his clear expertise in health policy and energy policy wonkery and entered comparative political systems science and their respective histories. Before doing that, he should study up.

Posted by: lancediverson | August 5, 2009 3:18 PM | Report abuse

"This makes intuitive sense when you think about it."

If you have to think about before it makes sense, then by definition the sense it makes is not intuitive.

Posted by: BarryDeutsch | August 5, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

*The problem is also closed primaries,*

This problem could be resolved by the voters themselves, who merely need to stop pretending that they are unique snowflakes whose political views are too complex to categorize themselves as a "Democrat" or "Republican" and finally register as a member of the party that they actually prefer. Then they can vote in the primaries that they're concerned about.

lancediverson: the procedural checks on overhauling legislation are the structure of the senate, which allows very small states a hugely disproportionate influence over which legislation is supported as well as the president, who can veto unacceptable legislation. If the Senate becomes dominated by factions from small states that end up making up a majority, then they can be stymied by the House of Representatives. There are already *lots* of procedural and structural checks on power. It sounds like people just want more and more of these checks when it doesn't result in the desired outcome.

Posted by: constans | August 5, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

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