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Why the majority never confronts the filibuster

mcconnellfilibuster.jpg

A friend of James Fallows with long experience in national politics talks a bit more about the impossibility of bipartisanship:

"I'm surprised at the number of people who say, in effect, 'But lots of bills have passed with Republican votes this year.'

"That's the reason to keep including (as your blog post did) the word "major" in front of "legislation." In a parliamentary system, the party does not make EVERY vote into one of required lock-step voting -- only major votes. Hence the notion of the "three line whip" notice in the House of Commons -- defy that, and you're dead. But absent the three lines drawn on the whip notice, an MP can vote the way he or she prefers. Or at least that was the way it used to work. Probably it is all done by Blackberry messages now.

"What the GOP has got going is a three-line whip notice on major legislation. The Recovery Act passed the House without a single GOP vote -- not even one! That could not happen without party discipline coming from the party, not spontaneously from each House member of the party. It is true that there are lots of other bills that Republicans can vote for if they wish. True, but irrelevant. If any of the bills really matters to Obama in a big way, the contemporary GOP version of the three-line whip notice comes into play.

"(And how EXACTLY does each GOP member get the word that a particular vote really matters for this purpose? Find the answer to that, and you will have the perfect comeback to those who try to blame intransigence of the Dems for the lack of GOP votes. Someone somewhere is giving orders to GOP members, whether by verbal means, written or oral, or secret handshakes or numbers of lanterns hung in the steeples of churches.)

"A closely related development fascinates and infuriates me, partly re the GOP and partly re the press. In the Senate, the GOP votes against cloture. But when the Dems finally manage to get the 60 votes, lots of GOP senators typically vote for the bill on final passage. "What's up with THAT?" I've asked several times. In the past, if you opposed a bill getting to a vote on the floor, typically (admittedly not always) you would also oppose it IN the vote on the floor. That was the only reason to oppose it getting to the floor - because you opposed it! The answer, I've been told several times (by Democratic staffers, who don't seem at all surprised or perturbed), is that a lot of Republicans don't want to be on record as voting against a bill they believe the public or their constituents favor. Huh? Trying to kill it without a vote is somehow safe politically, but voting against it on final passage is not? Now that, I submit, is an anomaly the blame for which we can lay at the feet of the much-diminished news media, and the shortcomings of the Senate Democrats."

To make that last point a bit more concrete, Republicans launched three separate filibusters against the extension of unemployment insurance. The bill ended up passing 97 to 0. Why didn't Democrats force them to stand and mount a real filibuster on the question?

The reason, basically, is that Democrats saw little upside in it. It would waste a lot of time at a moment when Democrats were trying to pass a lot of bills. Better to take it off the floor and negotiate a compromise so they could keep passing legislation while they worked out an agreement. This is, I think, one of the reasons that parties don't end up confronting the filibuster. When the party is strong and popular, it has better things to do, like pass legislation. When it is weak and less popular, it can't pass much legislation, but also can't afford -- or feel confident that it can win -- a fight over the filibuster.

Photo credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 2, 2010; 2:56 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

Today's bold prediction: if the Senate flips this November, the very first thing the GOP will do is abolish the filibuster.

Posted by: scarlota | February 2, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Wait, I thought you couldn't really force a filibuster any more? That the rules changed back in the 70s such that "forcing" a party to filibuster actually favors the filibustering party. I know I've read that hear and elsewhere recently. Please tell me that I wasn't yelling at the lady on the Daily Show for no good reason when she was advocating forcing the Republicans to filibuster.

Posted by: MosBen | February 2, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Well scarlota, that could be a good thing. The Dems are too spineless to confront repiglican obstruction, mostly because certain conservadems like being the pivotal vote on legislation, and losing the 60 vote requirement robs them of that position. The repiglicans have no such problems, because they rigorously enforce party discipline on all major votes. When was the last time a repiglican voted to filibuster a major bill that was sponsored by their leadership? If the repiglicans do away with the filibuster, the legislation that they would pass would be so stupid, venal, partisan, and ineffective in solving the nation's problems that the dems will be voted back into power, and magically won't have the filibuster anymore. I just hope that the repiglicans don't do too much damage while they control the senate.

Posted by: srw3 | February 2, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

"(And how EXACTLY does each GOP member get the word that a particular vote really matters for this purpose? Find the answer to that, and you will have the perfect comeback to those who try to blame intransigence of the Dems for the lack of GOP votes. Someone somewhere is giving orders to GOP members, whether by verbal means, written or oral, or secret handshakes or numbers of lanterns hung in the steeples of churches.)"

Regarding the "perfect comeback"... I'd have to say, well, not really. Most people who blame intransigence of the Democrats does so with the full expectation of, and in fact precisely because of, full bore Republican opposition.

When there are procedural paths available that would nullify the effectiveness of that opposition that the Democratic leadership pretends don't exist (eg - reconciliation for HCR), or there just appears to be no similar "three line whip" coming from the Democratic leadership (eg - Obama and HCR), THAT is the intransigence that is angering the base. The Democrats often have a way around the Republican opposition and simply refuse to use it for no apparent reason. After a while, it starts to look like their desire to actually govern was nothing more than political kabuki, because ultimately their level of success is still tied to their level of effort, which is most likely tied to their level of interest.

Posted by: burndtdan | February 2, 2010 4:48 PM | Report abuse

No, the reason nobody ever gets rid of the filibuster is because Senators who are or think they might be votes 50-60 on legislation don't want to get rid of the filibuster.

I'd bet 75% of Senators have an issue they care about and are vote 50-60 on.

Put that together with status quo bias and the ol' boy nonsense about how totally awesome the Senate and its traditions are (don't you like us? Don't you want to be friends and have a singing group?), and you've got a gridlocked Senate.

And they can pretend to be terribly, terribly high-minded as our government collapses in slow motion. As, I'm sure, their predecessors in Rome did as the system collapsed and those wretched Julii showed up...

Posted by: theorajones1 | February 2, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

The only reason this structure stands is because the Democrats are not NEARLY as inflexible about this as the Republicans have been. There is no "Gang of 16" this year, y'know?

As it stands, Republicans know they can beat the crap out of the Dems from the minority but ALWAYS peel off at least one or two from the majority. So there really is no reason to either compromise on any substantive policy or to support structural reform. The years of work they put into being a FOCUSED, disciplined party instead of being a "big tent" have allowed them to enjoy a major structural advantage under the Senate's modern rules.

Posted by: NS12345 | February 3, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

"That could not happen without party discipline coming from the party"

He means from both parties, of course. Who is giving the orders to the Democrats that the stimulus bill was one where the Democrats had to vote in lockstep, while the health care bill was not?

Look, if the Democrats could offer Ben Nelson a special deal to get his vote, they could have done so with Olympia Snowe. If the bill is in her constituents' interest such that it benefits her re-election prospects, she's going to vote for it. Any "orders" to the contrary from party leadership would be toothless and unenforceable (which is why the whole concept just sounds so delusional).

Posted by: tomtildrum | February 3, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

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