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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?


And Democrats?

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.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 13, 2009; 7:13 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews , Senate  
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"They have other things to do."

Like what? They haven't done anything since the stimulus, except whine and worry about reelection. F them -- make them actually be in chamber.

Posted by: AZProgressive | November 13, 2009 9:12 AM | Report abuse

"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."

This history really seems to underline the increasingly common liberal argument that Democrats just don't WANT success badly enough. Prof. Koger's right -- they would never take advantage of a Republican with laryngitis, they would never push a filibuster through a scheduled holiday, they would never conduct this kind of war of attrition. For a more recent example on the House side, compare Pelosi's MASSIVE concessions here to Delay's arm-twisting on the Medicare prescription drug plan.

The fact is that there ARE procedural tools at hand that could drive our agenda. But for whatever reason our party leaders have chosen not to use them.

Posted by: NS12345 | November 13, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

How fascinating. The reason that our most important legislators can't use the filibuster is that they need to keep fundraising and meeting with lobbyists, so they can get reelected and continue to achieve nothing.
Sad for the republic.

Posted by: GovtSkeptic | November 13, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

At the very least, the Democrats could have threatened to use the filibuster, much in the way that Bill Frist continually threatened the "nuclear option" on the Legal Committee filibuster if the nominees weren't approved. Try to negotiate, but let them know that you're willing to call their bluff if they try to obstruct.

Posted by: guardsmanbass | November 13, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

"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." Yeah, but this time public opinion is turning the other way. Every poll shows that there's a steady drift away from the health care reform bills - here's one from today (of course the polls disagree on where people are holding overall). And the 2010 elections are looming. Republicans will be happy the longer it takes.

Wikipedia: "In the modern filibuster, the senators trying to block a vote do not have to hold the floor and continue to speak as long as there is a quorum. Then when one senator becomes exhausted, another used to have to take over. But finally they could be worn down by a majority who would even sleep in cots outside the Senate Chamber to exhaust the filibusterers. Today, they just advise the majority leader that the filibuster is on. All debate on the bill is stopped until either cloture is voted by three-fifths (now 60 votes) of the Senate. The senators who filibuster get a free ride compared to the old days."

Posted by: MikeR4 | November 13, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

MR4. Republicans have been winning the PR battle by creating quite an illusion of what reform is.

But in a long filibuster, they would have to maintain that illusion under a long period of public attention and reporting.

They can't do that.

So their filibuster won't work. It will be like 1964.

Posted by: HalHorvath | November 13, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

In my humble, and admittedly partisan opinion, it is a sign of the commitment of Senate Democrats to real health care reform if they think that taking photos with their constituents, and debating Senate resolutions is more important than passing comprehensive health care reform.

It is a further demonstration of their commitment to the bill that they are so terrified of a threat of a filibuster that they cave and water any bill down to avoid one.

But one thing Dr. Koger didn't mention in this interview, which he needs to, is that waiting for the other side to screw up really isn't the only way to end the filibuster. As he likely will acknowledge, a cloture vote is also a good way to do it. Only a few members of the Senate Democrats have said they would join the GOP in filibustering this bill if it comes forward with a public option in it. All that needs to happen is that sixty Senators vote to end debate, and they are most of the way there. It's not like we, as voters, can't put pressure on the other ones who initially refuse to vote for cloture, to do so after some period of time. That is, if we assume Senators still listen to their constituents (whether or not that is a safe assumption is a totally different question.)

One more thing that Dr. Koger didn't mention was that Obama still enjoys a 54% approval rating in this country. People make a big deal about how that is way down since the beginning of the year, but it's still close to (or maybe more than) twice what Bush had when he left office. All the while the GOP is yacking in the Senate, Obama can get out and encourage people to write their Senators and get them to vote for cloture. Obama can get on the television every single night in prime time if he likes, and the only ones who won't air his speeches will be Fox News. He can have rallies all across the country if he likes.

And each of those rallies can also double as a fund raising appeal. If Obama can do some heavy lifting for a month or so, to make up for the way his administration handled the affair during the first part of the summer, when any hope of socialization of health care unfortunately evaporated, the Senate Democrats will eventually pass a bill, over the objection of the minority.

And then the Senators can go back to fund raising and taking pictures with constituents if they like.

Sometimes politicians actually have to prioritize something else over their own careers. Now seems like the perfect opportunity for that. But if they don't, it is incumbent on Democrats to punish them during the next election. because if they can't get things done, they have no business being in office.

W. Stodden
Carbondale IL

Posted by: wstodden | November 13, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

--"1964 Civil Rights Act."--

Richard B. Russell, [...] told the Senate: "We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states." Russell organized 18 Southern Democratic senators in filibustering this bill.

//end quote

Democrats, always on the wrong side of history. These days, they're trying to steer the U.S. to the glories of the defunct Soviet Union.

Posted by: msoja | November 13, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Hey msoja,

It's not the Democrats who are or have been on the wrong side of history. The group to which you allude is the group of Senators from the South who are all now Republicans.

As for being steered toward Soviet policy, no one is talking about that so pull your head out of your rear and look at what the rest of the OECD is doing, you know, our NATO allies.

Posted by: bcbulger | November 13, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

--"the group of Senators from the South who are all now Republicans."--

Like Bobby Byrd?

Posted by: msoja | November 13, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

"Republicans have been winning the PR battle by creating quite an illusion of what reform is." HalHorvath, I know that supporters of the health reform bill feel that anyone who knows anything agrees with them. But they always feel that way, and generally they haven't studied the other side of the issue; most of us don't.

But that's not how it works. The conservatives have been very successful in convincing most Americans that this process isn't producing a good result. Obama has made speech after speech, and the numbers are getting worse. Consider the possibility that most Americans just don't agree with you. Look, there's at least one - me. Perhaps there are more.

Posted by: MikeR4 | November 13, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I really enjoy the way Washington DC insiders talk as if this utterly ridiculous organization rule were a law of nature. It is a man-made (or more precisely, Senate-made) contrivance and it can be changed - or just ignored - at any instant.


Posted by: sphealey | November 13, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

sPh--the rules changes of the Senate are actually more difficult--to just ignore the rules would probably cause a public outcry. People don't like power grabs. That being said, it sounds like the Democrats, as usual, could, and should, be a lot more ruthless.

msoja--You are aware that the bills you're referring to--the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Housing Rights Act--were the centerpieces of Lyndon B. Johnson's administration? And that he was the main guy responsible for getting them passed? And that he's a Democrat?

More Democrats than Republicans voted for the bill; nobody questions that the Republicans then used a "Southern Strategy" of speaking in race-baiting code to win over angry white Southerners.

As confirmation, you can just look at this quote from Lee Atwater, in 1981, where I've had to censor a particularly vile racial slur. Please note that not only has no Republican ever condemned this quote, but that Lee Atwater basically managed Reagan's '84 re-election campaign.

"“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N*****, n*****, n*****,’ ” said Atwater. “By 1968, you can’t say ‘n*****’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

Posted by: gregM2 | November 14, 2009 9:04 PM | Report abuse

I would be willing to host a fundraising party for my preferred senator (D- NC) is she's stay during a filibuster, and help break it. Kind of like a wake. Wouldn't there fundraising be more lucrative if people saw them engaged in a fight?

Posted by: bigreddog1 | November 15, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

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