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Obama: Republican filibustering 'unheard of'


And the concerns over the filibuster march on. In the past few weeks, we've heard from Andy Stern, Paul Krugman, Sen. Jeff Merkley, and Sen. Tom Harkin on the difficulty the Senate has functioning now that it's subject to a 60-vote supermajority requirement. Next up? One Barack Obama.

"[A]s somebody who served in the Senate, who values the traditions of the Senate, who thinks that institution has been the world's greatest deliberative body, to see the filibuster rule, which imposes a 60-vote supermajority on legislation -- to see that invoked on every single piece of legislation, during the course of this year, is unheard of.

I mean, if you look historically back in the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s -- even when there was sharp political disagreements, when the Democrats were in control, for example, and Ronald Reagan was president -- you didn't see even routine items subject to the 60-vote rule.

So I think that if this pattern continues, you're going to see an inability on the part of America to deal with big problems in a very competitive world, and other countries are going to start running circles around us. We're going to have to return to some sense that governance is more important than politics inside the Senate. We're not there right now.

Perhaps more important, though, is the province of that answer: Jim Lehrer asked Obama a question about the filibuster in an interview, and then followed up with, well, "Is there anything you can do about this?" (Short answer: Not really.) David Axelrod got a similar question from David Gregory on Sunday's "Meet the Press." The fact that something is wrong in the Senate has begun to penetrate the Washington establishment. Pressure on this might ease in the coming months as health-care reform has brought an unusual clarity and urgency to the chamber's dysfunctions, but this is progress. Like with so much else, the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.

Photo credit: By Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  December 24, 2009; 6:31 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: Winning ugly, but winning


Something wrong with the Senate? Perhaps. But the filibuster custom doesn't seem to have caused this level of difficulty over the past few decades.

Rather, the problem seems to be the use of the custom in order to stall the work of the Senate.

Almost any custom or law can be used that way, if the user is ornery and shameless enough to do so. He is the archetypal "one guy who spoils it for everyone."


Posted by: NoniMausa | December 24, 2009 8:25 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, could you comment on the various paths available for weakening the filibuster? Paul mentioned in his column that there might be approaches other than a straightforward 67-vote rule change. What were the tactics proposed by Republicans when trying to eliminate the judicial filibuster?

Posted by: RyanD1 | December 24, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

memo to firedoglake, Klein,, from the communications office: Just like "hostage" was the buzzword of last week, so this week's is "something's wrong with the senate -- it doesn't come to heel as quick as a dog upon command." Klein, Dionne, and others are carrying the water here, folks. Firedoglake -- wtf? Joining with Norquist to call for an investigation of dealings on the board of Fannie Mae??? Guys, either fall in line, or you and yours will be on the regular healthplan we are devising for the public. Is that what you want? season's greetings, you know who

Posted by: truck1 | December 24, 2009 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Filibuster abuse has been facilitated not just by institutional drift in the Senate but also by concrete changes in Senate procedure. These include moving to a tracking system that allows other business to proceed but thereby decreases the cost of a filibuster and (in 1975) moving from a requirement of 2/3 of those present to end debate to 3/5 of all Senators sworn, a much harder threshold and one that also (indirectly) appears to make an attrition fight more difficult.

Reverse these procedural changes and the filibuster would remain, but be adequately contained.

Posted by: TCDrusus | December 24, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

For President and White House - they have to be relentless. Barack Obama has a solid argument - indeed rest of the world will start running circles around us. Exhibit A - Copenhagen Accord. It is a conventional wisdom now that, Obama's hand was considerably weakened by Senate and the way things work there so much as the President of United States was subjected to certain humiliation by Chinese. Get used to this more, unless we whack the Senate.

Next, we need Senate Candidates for election starting to campaign on 'reforms of Senate' proposal. What we need is a crisp, easy to understand and compact 'Reforming Senate' document published by some top constitutional experts of this country. Then for every Senate Candidate, starting 2010, we voters need to start asking, do you support 'Reforming Senate' or not. That way we will start gathering the grass root support for this change.

This will have to be the old fashioned way - public in unison with President and Media exert the pressure on Senators to be elected to make the change. We must keep in mind that Senators themselves will 'never' have the wisdom (and bipartisan support) to change on their own. It got to be from out side.

Posted by: umesh409 | December 24, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

"Perhaps more important is the province of that answer..." I'm certain you meant "provenance". This lack of command of language signals deeper intellectual flaws.

Posted by: truck1 | December 24, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Obama is a communist, who is now bemoaning the fact that the founding fathers made treason hard to accomplish. The fact remains, the HCR legislation just pushed is the most egregious act of the Democratic party since the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 ensured a civil war over slavery. The same 2010 electoral fate awaits the current Democrats (1854-55 elections changed Democrats' 159-71 majority to 108-83 minority, gave rise to the Republican party, and to Abraham Lincoln). The Democratic party, having pushed other such offenses as the Jim Crow laws, the KKK, and having conducted the only successful coup d'etat in American history (Wilmington, NC 1898), the Democrat part is one of shameful actions and treasonous behavior. why should we be surprised when their current Messiah bemoans the checks and balances designed to stop such treason.

Posted by: bakerdl | December 24, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

It is heartening to see some of the major power players, both in the world of punditry and politics, seriously taking about reforming the filibuster. But will it last? Or will the passions of the health care debate quickly fade?

Now is the time to keep pressing this issue. A unified minority, coupled with several Democratic Senators looking to become power-brokers, was able to seriously corrupt the legislative process.

Next up is climate/energy legislation. This is public policy that is dictated by science. And while health care reform can tolerate errors and still be effective, carbon dioxide is not so forgiving.

That being said, health care reform is an enormous achievement and those who were involved in passing it through the Senate should be proud.

Posted by: orteleus | December 24, 2009 1:51 PM | Report abuse

God forbid free people making their own decisions would have control over their own lives without the iron hand of the federal government to force them to do things they don't want to do. If Congress and the White House closed for a year, nobody would even notice.

I would caution all of you to be careful what you wish for when asking that legislation be easier to pass. You will certainly be on the other side in the very near future.

Posted by: kingstu01 | December 24, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse


Have you seen these Caplan posts over at Econlog? I would love to see your response.

Exegesis, Public Choice, and the Senate Health Care Bill

Some Preliminary Political Economy of the Senate Bill

Posted by: kingstu01 | December 24, 2009 2:30 PM | Report abuse

In reply to RyanD1:

There are three approaches that I know of to changing the filibuster rule. The first is to go through the normal rule change procedure, which as you note means that the change can be filibustered. It's just barely possible that the Republicans would allow this if the change wasn't scheduled to go into effect until after the 2016 elections, when it might be a Republican president who was trying to get his agenda through the Senate.

The second is to declare, at the start of a legislative session, that the Senate, like the House, is not a continuing body. The House has to pass its rules anew every two years. Arguably, the Senate is required to do the same.

The third option is the nuclear option. The way this works is as follows. If the individual presiding over the Senate makes a ruling, there are two ways to address the problem. First, a Senator can request that the presiding officer consult with the Senate parliamentarian. The parliamentarian's job is to know the Senate rules forward and backward, so normally his ruling will settle the matter, but the presiding officer is not actually required to accept the opinion of the parliamentarian. Second, a Senator can appeal the presiding officer's ruling. The appeal is decided by a majority vote of the Senate. The upshot of all this is that if a majority of the Senate decide that the rules say 50 votes is sufficient to invoke cloture, then 50 votes is all it takes, regardless of what the rules actually say.

I think that the nuclear option is simply too destructive to warrant serious consideration. The Senate requires rules in order to function, so the notion that a majority should feel free to ignore the rules whenever it feels like would cause more problems than it would solve.

I don't think we want to wait until 2016 to address the filibuster problem, even if the Republicans would agree to that, and I don't think Republicans will. The Republican brand is so badly damaged that the odds are they will still be in the minority in 2016.

That leaves us with the option of declaring that the rules of the Senate don't automatically stay in effect across election cycles. This rejects 200 years of tradition, but is consistent with the Constitution and doesn't undermine the notion that Senators are expected to follow the rules even when the rules cut against the majority. It does mean that we are stuck with the filibuster until January 2011, and if we don't get rid of it then we are stuck with it for another two years.

Posted by: KennethAlmquist | December 24, 2009 2:33 PM | Report abuse

"...and other countries are going to start running circles around us."

YES, thank you for making that point Mr. President. I think it's, amongst others, a very important reason to support abolition of the filibuster. As I noted in my anti-filibuster post (at:

One of the biggest problems with the filibuster is that it makes it far harder to learn by experimenting, to see first hand if the claims against a program or idea were false (or grossly, ridiculously false). It really hurts the U.S. when other advanced countries are far freer than us to experiment and learn...With regard to the power of learning by doing, the power of actually trying things to see first hand if the claims are true, and if the counter claims or scare tactics are false (and the Republicans come up with some outrageous whoppers that unfortunately often work), please see this [] important post at the Charter Cities blog of acclaimed economist, and likely future Nobel Prize winner, Paul Romer.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | December 24, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

truck1 says: "I'm certain you meant meant 'provenance'. This lack of command of language signals deeper intellectual flaws."

If he means means by this what I think he means means, I agree wholeheartedly.

The irony is delicious.

Posted by: bokonon13 | December 24, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Ezra congratulations. I've had my doubts about a dysfunctioning Senate but you've kept hammering away at it and you've persuaded me to your perspective over time.

It looks like others are agreeing with you, and it's becoming a useful meme, especially as RichardHSerlin notes in comment at 4:01 pm.

merry xmas dude.

Posted by: rosshunter | December 24, 2009 8:36 PM | Report abuse

"God forbid free people making their own decisions would have control over their own lives without the iron hand of the federal government to force them to do things they don't want to do."

Rasmussen says only 36% believe this bill is better than doing nothing. This bill forces them to buy a private product or face jail and fines.

And what about same-sex 'marriage'. Still on the side of the people? IN every referendum it has been rejected.

And then there's gun control that on one other than our Democrat overlords want.

Your statement seems to be convenient only when a bill you wish to impose on everyone else is looming.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | December 25, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Of course, Obama, Axelrod, etc., thinks "something is wrong" because not everyone agrees with their twisted logic. What a bunch of self-absorbed boobs that are willing to "bribe" to get their way. Chicago politics personified! I will be so glad when November 2010 & 2012 roll around and judgement will be faced by these socialist legislators. 2010...Without Doubt, Vote Them Out!

Posted by: my4653 | December 25, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Two words - Term Limits! Until we limit the time and the profit that so corrupts the leadership of this government we're in for more of the same. Vote the bums out, and lets not keep any of 'em very long...

Posted by: DontGetIt | December 25, 2009 9:45 PM | Report abuse

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