Did the invention of the airplane end the filibuster?
Whenever I write about ending the filibuster, the same question arises: Why doesn't Reid let the Republicans go at it? If you can't end the filibuster, you can at least make sure that the minority actually has to talk for weeks on end, as opposed to simply threatening to do so. To help answer this question, I called Greg Koger, a political scientist at the University of Miami and the author of an upcoming book on the filibuster.
Why don't the Democrats just break out the cots and let the Republicans filibuster?
There's a reason the Senate stopped doing this. Democrats are not going to want to sit around all day and be in the chamber listening to Republicans talk. They don't want to give up fundraisers. They don't want to give up trips. They'd have to give Republicans as much time as they wanted.
How would it work if they tried, though?
If you're serious about attrition, you make the opponents do all the talking. Any time there is a gap in the speaking, you begin your voting. Part of the problem is that I don't think any modern senator really understands how this works. When you see senators pretend to do this in the recent past, it's play-acting. In 2003, when the Republicans ran a reverse filibuster, if you tuned into C-SPAN 2 -- and I did -- you saw Republicans talking, which they shouldn't be doing! If it's the middle of the night and there's no Democrat there, that's when you bring up your amendment!
In the book, you argue that another piece of this is that the Senate is under more time pressure now than it used to be, and so losing time costs the majority party more than it used to.
There's two pieces. One is the time of the chamber. They have other things to do. The modern Senate has more staff, deals with more interest groups. There's more legislation. More appropriations. The modern senator spends 1 percent of his or her time on the Senate floor. They have to take pictures with constituents. They have to fundraise and meet with constituency groups and lobbyists and deal with staff. To actually have a live filibuster would mean they have to give up all the other business.
And as individuals, they have other things to do. Air travel has opened up. In 2009, if you are the senator from Montana, it's perfectly reasonable for you to go home on the weekend and campaign for reelection. That wasn't possible in 1940. You came to Washington to do your work and you stayed until it was done. Now air travel has made it possible for you to fly away for the weekend. That makes your time more valuable.
How many Republicans would need to be on the floor during a filibuster?
If that Republican says I note the absence of quorum, you need 50.
So Republicans could pretty much fan out across the media to make their points, and sit on the floor of the Senate showing their charts, and Democrats would be locked in the chamber to fend off quorum checks?
The debate is actually one-sided. All the debate is coming from the minority.
This vision of the filibuster is relatively different from the one the media has. You present it as a procedural war where you're waiting for the other side to make mistake so you can ram through your vote. The more general conception, I think, is that it's more like a long PR war where you wait for public opinion to break in one direction or another.
Traditionally, it's like a football game. You've got a running back who has to find a gap in an opponent's defense and he waits to find one guy who's tripped and he zips through to find a touchdown. In the book, there's one story from 1988 when the majority won because the guy who was filibustering was blind, and he thought that the guy who was going to take the floor for him wasn't. He sat down and the Republicans jumped up and took their vote. In 1950, a senator from Nevada gets laryngitis. These days, the majority would say, oh, we'd never take advantage of someone's laryngitis. But back then, they passed the bill, because the guy couldn't speak for it.
Could the majority use the filibuster to talk, also?
The best example of this is the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was the longest debate in the Senate's history. But the majority wasn't trying to wait out the Southerners. Instead, they just let them talk, and would send their guys down, and argue against them when they would, for instance, deny that lynchings happen in the South. This helped public opinion turn.
The benefit to the majority can be that public attention focuses. They know the bill is there and they know the Republicans are blocking it. That becomes the basis for news coverage. When will the bill be done? What's going on today? In that sense, you can win. The point is not that you exhaust the Republicans, but that you embarrass them. X number of people died today. I hope that whatever you had to say was more important.
And time can work on your side. In 1913, the second item on Woodrow Wilson's agenda was what we now know of as the Federal Reserve Act. The bill came up December 1st., and the Democrats said we'll stay here till the bill passes. If that means we don't get a Christmas break, we don't get a Christmas break. That focused people's attention.
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