Why the majority never confronts the filibuster
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.
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