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The Case For Filibustering


Political scientist Gregory Koger has a forthcoming book on the filibuster which his publicist was kind enough to send me and which I can already recommend very highly. But over at the Monkey Cage, he offers up the cliff notes version of his conclusion. Not to give too much away, but the title is "The Case for Filibustering; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Mitch McConnell."

I'm unconvinced. For instance, Koger notes that "just because one side’s got more votes, that doesn’t make its position true. In this country, ending slavery, enfranchising women, and adopting federal minimum wage were all once minority positions." That completely correct -- but the retention of the filibuster makes it more difficult to end such injustices, not less.

Elsewhere, he praises the capacity of the filibuster to ensure lengthy deliberation.

In our polarized polity, it is easy to forget that legislators are more than voting machines with “D” or “R” stamped on their foreheads. In fact, a healthy legislature does more than vote. Its members talk, and propose alternatives, and acknowledge each other’s views. In doing so they can improve legislation, represent their constituents, and explain their behavior to each other and to the nation.

But we're not talking about a "healthy legislature." At least on the polarizing issues where the filibuster comes into play, legislators really are little more "than voting machines with 'D' or 'R' stamped on their foreheads." That was the lesson most recently of the Gang of Six, but more broadly, of the past 15 years. A chamber built for cooperation cannot function in an era of polarization. And that's the relevant choice: a legislature that does function, or one that doesn't. A "healthy legislature" isn't on the table.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 29, 2009; 11:04 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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My understanding is that the current version of the 'filibuster' does not ensure lengthy deliberation in the sense of a formal debate on a specific legislative proposal, but in fact prevents it by not allowing legislation to come to the floor if it cannot clear the 60 vote threshold. So if its lengthy deliberation on actual legislation that Koger wants (as opposed to endless posturing on sound bite-ready issues), seems like he should support either ending filibusters or going back to the old "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" version of them.

Posted by: exgovgirl | September 29, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

i sure hope ezra's going to bash Senator Rockefeller just like he does Republican's that have no idea what they're talking about. The exchange that just went back and forth in the Finance Committee between him and Senator Nelson (admittedly on the fence) really made him look like an idiot. Why could he not say that they paid medicare or medicare +5%? Is it that he didn't know how it paid? Didn't want the argument of rationing be brought up??? What he'd be better off doing is offering up an ammendment of a MLR.

Posted by: visionbrkr | September 29, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

First, the filibuster does not really allow for longer debate anymore. With today's two track system, filibusterers no longer talk. The bill is just put aside and the senate moves on, unless or until there are 60 votes.

With regard to getting rid of bad ideas and trying now ones, the filibuster is very harmful, and this is a key reason why Democrats should eliminate it. As I wrote in a recent post (at:

The great good the Democrats would do with the filibuster eliminated – things like universal healthcare, or perhaps someday Medicare for all, free four years of college (we've been stuck at free education only up to high school for over 100 years, while the amount of education necessary to be a highly productive nation has skyrocketed in that time), and much more – once enacted, and people saw the truth of how good they were, as opposed to the Republican propaganda, would be permanent. The Republicans would never dare get rid of them, and if they did, it would be very temporary. Next election, the Republicans would be decimated, and the programs would be restored easily.

A good example is Medicare (universal single-payer health insurance, like in Canada and France, for our seniors). The Republicans, lead by Ronald Reagan, fought it tooth and nail in 1965, claiming it would lead to socialism, or worse. Today they would not dare even mention repealing it, because once it was actually passed people saw how much better it really made their lives and loved it.

By contrast, the things the Republicans would push through with 51 votes would usually be bad, or horrible, to the vast majority, and so once people actually experienced them, and saw firsthand how the lies about them were really false, like how they in fact only helped the rich, they would not last. The public would vote for change, and they would be repealed. AND the Republicans would be revealed. People would see firsthand that lies like trickle down were false, a devastating fairy tale, eventually – for some things they would see very quickly, for others over more time.

So, this is an extremely strong reason why Democrats should support elimination of the filibuster. Basically, or largely, what they would do would be permanent, like Medicare, unemployment insurance, free public schooling, but what the harm the Republicans would do would only be temporary, usually quite temporary, relatively speaking.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | September 29, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

"current version of the 'filibuster' does not ensure lengthy deliberation in the sense of a formal debate on a specific legislative proposal, but in fact prevents it by not allowing legislation to come to the floor if it cannot clear the 60 vote threshold"

as i understand this, the current version of the filibuster is an "off the books" arrangement

"not allowing legislation to come to the floor if it cannot clear the 60 vote threshold"

a "gentlemen's agreement, a political agreement

sort of a "nuclear deterrant"

"nothing is ever brought to a vote" due to an agreement to make things easier for the minority

a rule governing bi-party relations in the senate

a political arrangement

i suspect a very different kind of political pressure would happen if something were actually put to a vote

can you imagine the gop holding a filerbuster for days upon days like the southern democrats did in the civil rights battles?

do they have the strength to do it?

how long could they hold out?

what would their message be?

how would the body politic view it?

how much pressure would be on them to cave in?

the GOP threatened to break the filerbuster gentlemen's agreement, i hope the dems go ahead and break it

it would be the "bi-partisan" thing to do

Posted by: jamesoneill | September 29, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

To me the filibuster has a role to play in government and thats to extend debate so the public could be made aware of any troubling issues that the majority is trying to ram through unnoticed. So with my magic wand I'd have say 63 needed to stop debate on the first cloture vote. Then some period of time would pass and the next time you would need 3 fewer votes so it would take 60. Then 57. Enough time passes and the minority has had all the time they can handle to drum up awareness of the issue eventually it would just take 51 to bring it to a vote.

To me this is the proper balance of being able to stop the majority from just ramming through some putrid piece of legislation while also loosening up the levers to get stuff done. Play with the timeframe as you see fit for what the proper length of deliberation would be.

Posted by: spotatl | September 29, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Further point:

Koger's examples are bad ones. The abolition of slavery in the form of the 13th amendment could not have passed had the Southern delegation to the Senate been present and filibustering; and the 19th amendment and the FLSA were both pieces of legislation that passed by majority vote - the filibuster could have killed either of them, and at no point was the filibuster used as a tactical weapon on their behalf.

Posted by: StevenAttewell | September 29, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

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