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How the filibuster increases cynicism: An interview with Andy Stern

AndySternHELP.jpgAndy Stern is president of the Service Employees International Union.

You've recently begun talking about the problem of the Senate when you talk about the problems facing health-care reform. A lot of people in the debate seem to have made a similar move. Why?

I think its fair to say that at least the democrats have been campaigning with a dream of having 60 for a very long time. And the American people gave them a gift, and basically they're squandering it. Any organization needs to decide how it wants to hold itself accountable. But to me there's a question of what are the expectations amongst Democrats in terms of governing? What's the social contract?

On the night of the vote, you could see Sen. Dodd and Lieberman having a pleasant conversation behind the speaker. You're saying that in a Senate with clearer social pressures, Lieberman couldn't have walked back in and been greeted warmly after threatening to doom his party's top priority.

Democrats have failed to create a normative set of behaviors. They rely on rules when they should really act like a party. The fact that they have to change the rules because they cant act collectively is sad. Everyone gets to be the general when they feel their will or their issue or their point of view trumps everyone else's.

Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, everybody held up their vote for the purpose of gaining personal leverage. Now, appropriately, Harry Reid has to say this is the nature of legislation. But I never thought the nature was making compromises on rules rather than substance. This was 'I'll use the rule of 60 to gain substantive advantage.' The idea was not that democrats get 60 so everyone can be king or queen for a day. Everyone has been empowered. Why shouldn't Kent Conrad say that he won't raise the debt ceiling unless he gets his commission? It's the culture we've created. When we reward inappropriate behavior, we breed more inappropriate behavior.

The emphasis on social pressures rather than structural incentives is interesting, though. These senators who have both the temperament and the credibility to make threats have enormous leverage over some of the largest bills we've ever passed. It's hard to imagine the social pressures that could compete with that kind of power.

Do senators not appreciate how odd this looks to America? That with 60 votes, we can't have a debate? As obstructionist as the Republicans are, there is no such thing as a Republican filibuster. If there is a filibuster, it means Democrats are filibustering themselves.

What would you do about it?

I would try and change the rules. Close the door and push a reset button. I'd look at chairmanships and rules. If I had an executive board and a set of rules that any one of my members could veto anything, how much power would I have? What can Harry Reid do? If the junior senators are silent and they adapt to this culture, it fuels it.

I think some find it weird that this conversation is paired with arguably the largest legislative achievement in 40 years or so. But watching all this happen, as you say, amidst 60 votes, has been something of a wake-up call. "We need 60 votes" was sort of the last excuse. If you need more than 60 votes, well, you're never going to get that. Effective governance can't be predicated on drawing double aces and then getting two more on the flop.

I think that the changes the country needs to be competitive in the 21st century are different than they were when we were the superpower at every level. The emergence of a global economy and of China and India are raising different questions, and the Senates rules, traditions, and customs -- glorious and historical as they might be -- do not seem suited to the problems my son will have to deal with. It's a profound question about rules. What was so sad was that Democrats had an opportunity here to model effective government, to show they can govern by having full and fair debate and taking votes.

One element of this that doesn't get enough attention, in my view, is the impact it has on the American people. It makes perfect sense for the 60th Senator to increase his leverage by sniping at the bill, but that leaves people with the impression that it's not a good bill, not that Nebraska wants more Medicaid money. Similarly, the last-minute deals you need, and the endless delay that leaves the legislation stuck in an ugly and polarizing legislative process, ends up making people think the product is a lot worse and more radical than it actually is.

I agree. It also masks the complete obstructionist nature of the Republicans. All you hear is about the Democrats fighting with each other. They're negotiating with Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson and the Blue Dogs, and here are the Republicans with no intention of solving any problems, and Democrats can't even set up that contrast because how can you blame the Republicans if the Democrats cant act together?

That leaves people with the storyline that you were saying. The process becomes so debilitating that it overtakes the substance, and the Democrats are allowing the Republicans to skate free. The Republicans become a sideshow when they should be front and center. It not only means we can't get things done, but it means the things we are getting done are not seen through a good lens. People see things in terms of effectiveness. The Democrats are playing exactly into people's most cynical beliefs -- it looks like they're making deals for themselves at the expense of the country and the Republicans are lucky because they get to stand on the sidelines and point.

That's an interesting point. It doesn't look so bad for even the most moderate Republicans to oppose the bill if the more conservative Democrats need to be bought off to support it.

Right. But is it really possible that on every bill before the U.S. Congress there's not a single Republican willing to agree on anything?

One thing you occasionally hear is that this is just how the Senate works. These traditions are old and hallowed and have worked a long time. But in the market, that answer doesn't really work. If an institution ceases functioning, it gets overtaken by younger, nimbler competitors. Government doesn't work that way, of course, but a lot of people -- including a lot of senators -- think that, as much as possible, it should. But then they turn and present these archaic and ineffective processes as a virtue.

This is what happens when institutions have toxic cultures. they eat themselves alive. It's like a virus. In the market, they would have had to adjust, or they would've gone out of business.

Photo credit: Senate HELP Committee.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 26, 2009; 12:16 PM ET
Categories:  Interviews , Senate  
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Next: Fixing the filibuster: An interview with Sen. Jeff Merkley


"This is what happens when institutions have toxic cultures. they eat themselves alive. It's like a virus. In the market, they would have had to adjust, or they would've gone out of business."

Andy Stern speaking of the Senate has perfectly described the trajectory of his Labor Movement over the past 40 years.

Posted by: hughmaine | December 26, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

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