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Will eliminating the filibuster result in majority rule?

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Jonathan Bernstein doesn't think eliminating the filibuster will result in quite the majoritarian utopia proponents suggest.

Are filibuster opponents in favor of majority rule in the Senate?

No, not really. What they're in favor of is majority party rule.

That, as Emily Litella used to say, is very different. The House of Representatives, over the last fifty years, has increasingly featured majority party rule. That means the majority party gets to choose which bills come up for a vote, which amendments are allowed to be offered, what the voting rules for those amendments are...they get to manipulate things so that the majority party gets its way. But that doesn't mean that the majority is getting its way. Not everyone in the majority party agrees on every issue. But if the party controls the agenda, they can narrow that agenda to those things that do have widespread agreement from majority-party Members of the House, and prevent votes on amendments and bills that might get 218 votes from some combination that does not involved the majority of the majority party.

To be sure, filibuster opponents, at least in my experience, actually are in favor of majority rule. It's just that there's no obvious way to achieve it. That said, eliminating the filibuster also makes majority rule easier. If a coalition of 12 Democrats and 40 Republicans wants to add an amendment that the Democratic Party doesn't like but that a majority of the country does, they could do that in the absence of the filibuster. In the presence of the filibuster, they couldn't. It is easier to build a 51-vote majority -- whether that majority is of one party or two parties -- than to build a 60-vote majority.

More broadly, one of the hopes of eliminating the filibuster is that it changes some of the forces encouraging lockstep party discipline. As the political scientist Barbara Sinclair has documented, the sharp rise in the filibuster came in the early-'90s, when Republicans decided to try and regain Congress by relentlessly obstructing the president's agenda. They succeeded, and neither party ever really looked back.

In the absence of the filibuster, that strategy loses much of its luster. The majority party looks like a failure if it can't get its agenda through Congress, or if its agenda is held up and broken up and slowed down and left to sit and amass opponents as the majority frantically compromises away its best features to reach 60 votes. But it's the minority party that looks like a failure if the majority party is able to pass its agenda smoothly and quickly, and then go to the American people atop a raft of accomplishments. And that's a lot easier to do if you need 51 votes rather than 60.

In that scenario, it might be that relentless minority obstruction begins to collapse as a strategy. There are reasons to think this won't be true, of course. The parties will still be polarized and their bases will still run primary challengers. The House is majoritarian, and also polarized. But it strategizes in concert with the Senate. The obstruction of House Republicans would be meaningless if not for the obstruction of Senate Republicans.

After a couple bad elections, parties do have a tendency to rethink their approach. And if stopping the majority is no longer working, it may be that individual legislators begin to see more appeal in tactical cooperation that lets them come home with concrete achievements, too. In that way, eliminating the filibuster doesn't ensure majority rule, but it makes it more plausible, because it makes the prevailing alternative -- minority obstruction meant to position the party for the next election -- less viable.

Photo credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 13, 2010; 10:38 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

I used to think that the filibuster was a necessary tool, at least in part because what if we ended up with a situation where "the other party" was in control.

After closely watching the health care debate I have come to believe that with the filibuster we are grinding towards a future where we are unable to govern ourselves.

Better to have "the other party" trying to do things I can complain about and mobilize against, than what we have today.

Posted by: scott1959 | January 13, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

You don't like the filibuster. We get it. Give it rest.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | January 13, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

"the sharp rise in the filibuster came in the early-'90s, when Republicans decided to try and regain Congress by relentlessly obstructing the president's agenda. They succeeded, and neither party ever really looked back. (that would be bob dole)"

96-98-00-02-04-06-08

there have been a couple of elections and the modern filibuster strategy is as powerful a tool as ever

up until 1913, senators were appointed, not elected by a majority of voters

not until there is a revolution within the gop and it encompasses a broader range of opinions

when in the majority the gop can count on conservative democrats to join them on many issues and the modern filibuster is less effective against their agenda

when in the minority the presence of conservative democrats makes up for the gop lack of number and the modern filibuster is very powerful against the democrat agenda

obstructive, anti-majority procedures in the senate have always won the praise of conservative politicians and historians


Posted by: jamesoneill | January 13, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

"the sharp rise in the filibuster came in the early-'90s, when Republicans decided to try and regain Congress by relentlessly obstructing the president's agenda. They succeeded, and neither party ever really looked back. (that would be bob dole)"

96-98-00-02-04-06-08

there have been a couple of elections and the modern filibuster strategy is as powerful a tool as ever

not until there is a revolution within the gop and it encompasses a broader range of opinions

when in the majority the gop can count on conservative democrats to join them on many issues and the modern filibuster is less effective against their agenda

when in the minority the presence of conservative democrats makes up for the gop lack of number and the modern filibuster is very powerful against the democrat agenda

obstructive, anti-majority procedures in the senate have always won the praise of conservative politicians and historians

up until 1913, senators were appointed, not elected by a majority of voters


Posted by: jamesoneill | January 13, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Here's a suggestion, make the filibuster be overturned with senator's representing 60% of the population. Not sure what that would look like, but it would allow majority rule (and possibly provide some interesting bipartisan motivations.

Posted by: ChicagoIndependant | January 13, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I think you're missing one of his key points. The coalition of 40 Republicans and 12 Democrats on a particular issue is meaningless if they can't schedule a vote on that issue.

Posted by: madjoy | January 13, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

And in the case of adding an amendment to a bill that's already up for a vote, it can be ignored because the party can just create a single amendment with all the party's amendments squished together, like they did in HCR, that basically forces the whole party to vote for the entire package of amendments. This takes away the ability to actually debate each amendment. It worked in HCR to speed up the process, but it's not a very good precedent to have set.

Posted by: madjoy | January 13, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

The House model allows for party leadership, not the entire party or a bipartisan bloc, to control legislation. Is that something we really want for the Senate? Is that something we really want for the House? Particularly when members are encouraged to be unethical in their rise to and retention of leadership roles?

Posted by: cprferry | January 13, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

It is not a simple question of majority rule, it is a question of accountability. Party rule may or may not result in majority rule, but empowering a party to implement the agenda established in the election process (note: the American system does NOT necessarily result in the party with the majority of voters in a given election controlling either the House or the Senate)does allow the voting public to assess the success of that agenda in resolving public issues. The current system, not caused by, but compounded by the filibuster, allows both parties to maintain that their ideas, programs, and policies were never really given a chance. Republicans, with justification, were able to claim that Reaganomics really never was put into effect properly because of Democratic obstructionism. The Democrats, most assuredly, and with justification, will be claiming that any shortcomings of health care reforms are the result of Republican obstructionism. I don't expect perfection, but I do favor any reforms that help the voters assess a party's governing performance. Ending the filibuster can move us in that direction.

Posted by: alparkero | January 13, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

There is another point of view: First do no harm.
This makes the filibuster very sensible. Government is not the answer. The answer is personal responsibility and the free market. Of course, this is blasphemy to the liberal mind set, but there are many of us who believe in a limited government. So if less gets done, we are better off. Remember the old joke: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you..."

Posted by: ChrisK2 | January 13, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

The GOP only condones and loves filibusters when it's they are the majority. They complained bitterly whenever the Dems filibustered during Bush's reign, they complained that it destroyed majority rule. When the GOP is the majority then they believe in majority rule, when they're not in power then they stop believing and claim the majority party is railroading them. They didn't mind when Kathleen Harris put Bush in office despite the fact that he did not have a majority but then when the minority was opposed to the failed Iraq war they called us focus groups. So really the GOP is a party of serious hypocrits, liars, cheaters, philanderers and thieves while making believe that they're all connected to Christ in some intimate manner. The bottom line is conservatives want to be in power and really don't believe in democracy plain and simple. Most of them would rather that we have a one party system their party.

Posted by: davidbronx | January 13, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Madjoy. Erza's analysis misses Bernstein's point about an illusory majoritarian utopia in the Senate without cloture or a filibuster. Remember the founders' concept of the Senate as a "saucer" -- the chamber that cools the "coffee" (legislation) boiled in a more superheated, passionate "cup" of the people's House. The Senate's filibuster rule is consistent with the idea that a simple majority should not ram through ill-conceived - even if popular - legislation (ignoring the fact that all recent versions of HCR reform have been largely unpopular with the public) without take greater care and deliberation for the consequences. Also, it is clear that 'lockstep party discipline' is a far easier partisan strategy -- and more easily achieved -- without the filibuster, and would lack this element of senatorial deliberation desired by the founders. Further, the sharp partisanship described by Barbara Sinclair in Party Wars (2006) fits nicely with arguing for elimination of the filibuster; Sinclair describes how the partisan gulf that separates the two national parties developed in the 1990s to address “why did party activists and voters polarize?” Yet Sinclair's premise and her historical analysis on the causality of this polarization is flawed. Sinclair presents as “normal” a historical baseline of post-WWII politics (1950s-1980s) from which she projects a polarized national party environment in Congress today. However, closer examination reveals that the actual “anomaly” is Sinclair's baseline itself. One could easily make a historical case that partisan party polarization is closer to the norm in American politics, a norm distorted by greater than usual bipartisanship during the Cold War. There are other flawed elements of her analysis as well; this is but one. But surely the use of the filibuster as an obstructionist tactic is not new, nor invented by the Republicans only in the 1990s, nor used exclusively by the GOP in recent history. The filibuster means that mere party control of the Senate does not automatically translate into legislative gold as in the House; and it should (and I emphasize "should") require greater deliberation and debate over merits of legislation, and not the crass and possibly unconstitutional deal-making to buy the 60th vote seen in the HCR "debate". Yet without the Senate's cloture rule and filibuster, the American government would be a far more different (and I would argue lesser) political system.

Posted by: kevin571 | January 13, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

“Government is not the answer. The answer is personal responsibility and the free market.”

Right, I don’t want government telling private businesses what they have to do. No more mandates to construction companies. We’ll let the free market work. Eliminate all those fat cat unnecessary government inspectors. Think of all the money we would save.

No better example of how well that thinking works than Haiti.

Posted by: charlescycle | January 13, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Keep the 60 votes required for cloture, but return to the rules when it wasn't just a procedural 'oop to jump through. Those filibustering should actually have to show up and speechify non-stop, all carried live on CSpan for all to see. They would have to make their argument in longer than 30 second segments and anyone paying attention (unfortunately, that means thousands of americans, not millions) would be able to determine for themselves whether they're just saying "NO".

Posted by: zspam | January 13, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

The filibuster rule in the Senate goes along with its federal character. Senators represent states, not the population as a whole. Centralizers, like Alexander Hamilton, would have states have weighted representation, but as California and Texas, the two most populous states, each have only two senators, the same as Alaska and Delaware, sixty votes in the Senates comes closer to a numerical majority in the country than fifty.

Posted by: RobbyS | January 13, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

But do you want a system where one party gets to prevent everything from passing except funding for the war. Which is what will happen once the Dems lose the Senate in November?

Posted by: charlescycle | January 13, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

You forget that USA is not a democracy but a representative republic by design. You do not like it - pass a constitutional amendment. I for one prefer filibuster to tyranny of majority

Posted by: igorkh | January 13, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Another comment on Madjoy's (2nd) comment. This highlights what the Federalist Papers warned about -- the tyranny of the majority. Party control of the Senate, and its ability to bend, twist or just plain ignore the chamber rules as needed to get its way, makes it tough enough even with a filibuster for the minority to be heard in a highly partisan environment. The filibuster and cloture requirement provides at least some means for Congress to acknowledge and accommodate the views of the minority and to thoroughly assess the consequences of its possible actions and, in most cases, to build a truly bipartisan consensus on important legislation. As Sen. Olympia Snowe noted last year, all major social legislation passed in the last century was approved with healthy bipartisan majorities, despite the existence of the filibuster, the use (or threat) of which helped craft better legislative products that enjoyed sustained popularity with the public. A party-controlled Senate passing major controversial legislation by a bare majority guarantees a continual revisiting of the issue every time the majority party changes in Congress. This prospect is far less desirable than the existence of the filibuster in the Senate.

Posted by: kevin571 | January 13, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

The filibuster and cloture requirement provides at least some means for Congress to acknowledge and accommodate the views of the minority and to thoroughly assess the consequences of its possible actions and, in most cases, to build a truly bipartisan consensus on important legislation.

I agree I just think that it should be used on every bill AND on every appointment that requires Senate approval. I tend to see this as an abuse of the intent of our founding fathers.

Erroll Southers was nominated in September by President Barack Obama to run TSA. 4.5 months ago.

Posted by: charlescycle | January 13, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Adherence to party discipline causes our legislators to agree to legislation that they themselves do not believe in. If fact it causes them to cease to represent their districts that we have all hired them for. Are we a representative democracy or not? As we see in these times we are not.

Posted by: kdjkdj | January 13, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Very little hass been accomplished by our government with the 60 vote majority rule in place. We are in deep trouble in this country and their are certain obstructionists who can bring this country to its knees because a lobbyist might abject to a vote. I, for one, am tired of having big money running our country. Perhaps if our congress voted the way the people wish, we would be able to balance the budget, stay out of unnecessary (but profitable) wars, and restore our ggod name around the world. But who listens to me? I am not a wealthy lobbyist. So my vote doesn't count . . . at least until November.

Posted by: rkcdlitt | January 13, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Query: Where was all this discussion on the left of the need to eliminate the fillibuster when D's were using it to stymie George W. Bush's (and Bush the first's and Ronald Reagan's) judicial selections? Why was there such a hue and cry when the then R controlled Senate was threatening to use the "nuclear option" to eliminate the use of the fillibuster for those nominations on Constitutional grounds? Typical left wing hypocrisy!

Posted by: rfd123 | January 13, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

But it does insure gridlock. This country can no longer neglect addressing huge energy, infrastructure, and financial problems if our children are to have any future in this brave new world of globalization.

When the Republicans used reconciliation to pass their agenda in 2000, there was no debate about whether they could do it. The filibuster wasn't even a factor in the Senate until the racists wanted to stop the civil rights legislation in the 1960's. This is a legacy that needs to be preserved?

Let's return to the 51 vote majority instead of making excuses for gridlock caused by a "principle" that has nothing to do with democracy or arithmetic. Just imagine how screwed up things could get if this stupid idea took root in the House as well.

Posted by: sandyok1950 | January 13, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

If you calculate the percent of the people represented by the 40 republican senators by state population (2009 est), you will find it to be 33%. How can we ever get decent legislation with the 60 vote requirement? Let's just use the 51 count the Constitution requires.

Posted by: jackdollries | January 13, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

This country has been turned upside down by these diabolical Democrats who seem intent on destroying this nation in short order. By God, they are going to start paying for all this madness in November. This retribution is going to continue into 2012 also.

Posted by: walterndebby | January 13, 2010 6:43 PM | Report abuse

I think that eliminating the filibuster & many of the other anti-majoritarian rules of the Senate are a function of that body being a two-party system. Maybe if there were 3 caucuses (not necessarily 3 parties, mind you) that actually stuck together, then the leadership & agenda-setting would end up having to be shared & based on compromise. Then the filibuster would lose much of its appeal, because when one faction used it they wouldn't just be sticking it to the 'opposing party' but also to the third faction with which that party happened to be aligned at that time - a faction that you have to see as a prospective ally on other issues.

Just a thought - but i'd be interested to hear what game theorists & political scientists would have to say about that, and whether anybody thinks that it could be done within the current system. e.g. if, let's say, Snowe, Collins, Lieberman & a few Blue Dogs kept their party affiliation but just stopped caucusing with either the Ds or the Rs, what would happen?

Posted by: tomwoods | January 13, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

The use of the filibuster is a tactic that prevents majority rule.
A majority of members of each House shall constitute a quorum to do business. Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings. Why a majority would deny its representatives majority rule reflects upon the ethics of those in whom power and authority have created a sense of superiority over those from whom their power is derived.
Election of public servants has morphed into a club of self serving elitists who must be reminded of their accountability to the constitution and the people.

Posted by: rightlyso | January 13, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Just anote to sandyyok1950. The racists were Democrats.
Ezra, a filibuster is necessary especially now because every bill by the Democrats is not based on our Founders priciples but based on Saul Alinsky, Maoists, and Marxists priniciples. I have and seen video of people in the White House who you obviously agree and know about but refuse to write about (it could be a great story if you were a real reporter). If this is the only to stop the distruction of our country then so be it.

Posted by: kdieck | January 13, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

Nothing moves- Constitution was majority

Last time I checked - majority of 100 is 51!

But then again- AMERICANS suck at Math and Science!

A country that does not move forward!

No wonder BRIC is missing the A!

BRAZIL- RUSSIA- INDIA- CHINA

NO AMERICA!

Boy- are we smart!


Posted by: sasha2008 | January 13, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

Some good comments here by those who were not ranting.

Clearly, power and prestige have accrued in the Senate totally disproportionate to the interests of the people they are elected to serve. Senators are voting in their own interest, allied with the power and influence that keeps them there, not necessarily on the side of their constituent voters. Their seats are bought and paid for in campaigns where spending is essentially limitless.

As long as this is the case, a sixty vote majority exacerbates the problem of ever getting representative solutions to problems and issues because it allows even more insularity in the Senate. While we have 100 fingers pointing blame in all directions, the safest place in an election is the deepest pocket.

Our society is not as divided as the two parties appear to be. But are the parties as divided as they pretend? After all, the status quo is just fine when you're millionaires.

Protecting the interest of the minority? As it stands now, They're pretty well protected even without the requirement of a super-majority for progress on anything.

In our current system, where unlimited dollars have been defined as free speech, there will never be real representation of the majority of citizens. It may take a constitutional amendment, or a reversal of the supreme court, but publicly financed elections are likely the most effective means to restore free speech and representative government to the people who are non-millionaire. Then they'd have to raise the supermajority to eighty or ninety.

Posted by: seen2much | January 20, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

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