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How the filibuster destroys accountability

Rep. David Obey's retirement letter -- like Evan Bayh's before him -- is a remarkable document. There's a lot going on in there, but I'd just point out this passage, which is eloquently enraged on the difficulties the filibuster creates for members of the House of Representatives.

At the end of this term I will have served in the House longer than all but 18 of the 10,637 men and women who have ever served there. The wear and tear is beginning to take its toll. Given that fact, I have to ask myself how I want to spend the time I have left. Frankly, I do not know what I will do next. All I do know is that there has to be more to life than explaining the ridiculous, accountability destroying rules of the Senate to confused, angry, and frustrated constituents.

"Accountability destroying" is the important term there. Let's say you're David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the principal authors of the stimulus. You're running for reelection, and unemployment in your district is 12 percent. Predictably enough, your constituents are angry. They want to know why you didn't do more.

But you, David Obey, did do more. You passed a $900 billion stimulus. But then Republicans mounted a filibuster and the cost of breaking it was to lop $100 billion right off the top, and then to make $70 billion of what remained an AMT patch, which isn't a stimulus measure so much as a tax cut for wealthy and upper-middle-class Americans. So what do you tell your constituents? The mean old Senate made your bill less effective? And even if you could tell your constituents that, what does it matter? People vote based on the conditions around them, and if you're not able to pass legislation that sufficiently improves conditions, they're going to blame you.

In the absence of the filibuster, majorities would still fall short of what the public asks of them. A $900 billion stimulus is better than a $700 billion stimulus, but it's still not sufficient. And they'd have to go and defend their record before the voters. But in the presence of the filibuster, the majority is really defending -- and owning -- the deal demanded by three or four Republicans, even as the rest of the Republican Party is attacking that deal.

And that's why it destroys accountability: Instead of the majority defending its actions, the majority has to defend the product of a compromise with a small group of minority senators who held the keys to the filibuster. And that situation is even crazier when you're dealing with House elections, where the majority has to run on deals that they didn't even cut. You can spend your days trying to explain this twisted system to people who want help rather than a tutorial on congressional procedure, but as Obey says, that's a crummy way to spend your days.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 6, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: When bad economic news is good news


The assumption here is that the will of the majority best serves us all. That is simply untrue.

You've provided one example out of hundreds of pieces of legislation to press your idea for getting rid of the filibuster. I need far more examples than that in order to take your proposition seriously, Mr. K.

As to what amount of money would have made the stimulus bill "sufficient" is a matter of debate. You're entitled to believe the amount included in the bill was too low, but it would be appropriate to mention that's your view instead of presenting it as fact.

Posted by: MsJS | May 6, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Fortunately that majority thing won't be a problem for ya come November Kline ...

Posted by: cunn9305 | May 6, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

The trouble with your analysis is that it omits a key element of the U.S. government: it is already designed to reduce the likelihood of a tyranny of the majority. In the Senate, North Dakota has as many votes in the Senate as California. On an individual-voter level, the people of North Dakota are more important than the people of California for Senate purposes. Of course, because our government is designed to reduce the likelihood of any sort of tyrranical period, the Senate's bills have to be approved by a majority of the House and then signed by the President.

So, Obey's comments are accurate in the sense that the Senate is quite anti-Democratic. The filibuster takes that anti-Democratic approach a step further, compelling 60 senators to approve the beginning of a bill's debate. The majority party (foolishly) allowed the minority party to (wisely) slow virtually every piece of legislation.

Posted by: teoandchive | May 6, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

"an AMT patch, which isn't a stimulus measure so much as a tax cut for wealthy and upper-middle-class Americans"

If the speed limit were scheduled to be reduced from 55 to 50, and Congress passed a law keeping it at 55, you wouldn't say that Congress increased the speed limit. Same thing with the AMT patch. It merely prevents a tax increase on upper-middle-class Americans. The patch doesn't reduce the AMT from what was in effect the year before; it just keeps the tax from getting worse.

Besides which, the AMT is one of the most asinine taxes we have, and that's saying a lot.

Posted by: ostap666 | May 6, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Here's the other thing about supermajority vote requirements: it encourages both the majority and the minority, knowing their ideas will never become law, to govern irresponsibly. If a party holds a 56-seat majority, then it can propose as many politically popular but also irresponsible ideas knowing full well that such proposals will never see the light of day with the opposition party having the right to block such proposals. I bet if the Senate had simple-majority vote requirements, the majority party would also become more responsible as they know they have to live with the consequences of their ideas, and cannot merely use them for grandstanding purposes.

Posted by: moronjim | May 6, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

HooRay! HooRay! The wicked witch of the approriations committee is dead. There is a breeze across our land that promises to bring sanity back to our nation.

Obey spent 40 years too long in congress. He served as a socialist that paved the way for the marxists that came into power in our once proud nation.

When history is written it will be stated that the second Tea Bag Revolution outshadowed the first!

Posted by: colnzgprnts | May 6, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse


You're a very smart guy. Smart enough to be more discerning than you are here. Please tell me that you're not buying into this public explanation to as great a degree as it seems.

I suppose it's possible that Mr. Obey is leaving because he's just so durned frustrated with those meanies in the Senate. But the much more likely explanation is that the extraordinarily powerful Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee has little interest in expending huge amounts of energy just for the privilege of keeping his seat and becoming the Ranking Member on said committee under Republican control. At this late stage in his career, why slog through a difficult reelection only to spend your last few years on the job in a position with much less clout?

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the level of self-interest behind every decision a politician makes.

Posted by: MDA123 | May 6, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

@MsJS: it would be appropriate to mention that's your view instead of presenting it as fact.

Perhaps Ezra should have stated that,in the view of most credible economists looking at the depth of the recession and the amount needed to get to the stated goal of jump starting the economy and keeping unemployment under 8%, the original stimulus was too small by 1/3.

Posted by: srw3 | May 6, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

The DemocRats are imploding!

I suggest they look for hideouts in Brazil as Nazi War Criminals had done in the past, when the long arm justice was looking for them also!

Posted by: theaz | May 6, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Amazing how when the Democrats were in the minority, the filibuster was critical to democracy...and now that they are in the majority, it destroys democracy---hypocrisy in action.

Posted by: JCM-51 | May 6, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

"A $900 billion stimulus is better than a $700 billion stimulus, but it's still not sufficient."

Dude I'm rolling. I finally get it after this post and the one about the Times Square bomber being motivated by having his home foreclosed on. The Post made up this "Ezra Klein" character as part of a humor blog where they have "Mr. Klein" say the most off the wall, unhinged and thoughtlessly reflexive liberal drivel possible. Very subtle but also hilarious! It also explains the fact that "Ezra Klein's" photo looks like an "if they mated" photo of the Jonas Brothers and New Kids on the Block circa 1989.

Nice job thinking outside the box Washington Post and thank you "Mr. Klein" for the great laughs. Maybe you can make your next post about how hard Obama is trying to inject civility back into politics. That would be sweet.

Posted by: wspanicfreak | May 6, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

The Tea Partiers and Republicans are guilty of a gross error in reading the polls if they believe the anger at incumbents will gain them a majority. The public is angry at the fact that their will is being ignored because a vocal few are forcing unwanted compromises.

The general public is, in fact, not inclined to vote farther to the right. They do see the filibusters and secret holds for what they are, and are fed up.

In the words of James Thurber - "don't count your boobies before they're hatched!"

Posted by: lurkittyfb | May 6, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

@MsJS: "The assumption here is that the will of the majority best serves us all. That is simply untrue."

Ah, the words of someone who doesn't like democracy. Or at least, doesn't like it when the decision isn't synching with what she thinks is "correct". Well, I'll risk it, thanks. I have more faith in the majority, warts and all, than in the "better judgement" of a few.

@cunn9305: You might yet be surprised. What will surprise me is, if November rolls around and we still have that majority, you'll state as publicly that you were wrong.

Posted by: bjameswi | May 6, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you're right on with this post. It's easy to say that after reading it and in light of the attacks you're attracting from the right.
Pay no attention. Little of what they say is based in fact. The republican senators have played politics with our nation and its people far more than at any other time in our history.
All these posters would have to do is look up some facts to know they're blowing smoke; just like the Grand Obstructionist Party.

Posted by: easysoul | May 6, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, could you please send me a copy of an article or two you wrote a few years ago complaining about the filibuster of all of President George W. Bush's federal judge appointments? I would like to see these so I can be assured that it is not only Republican filibusters to which you object.
By the way, the founding fathers set up all of the checks and balances, so that we would have limited government, and, more specifically, so that only bills that had a broad consensus would get passed.

Posted by: richard56 | May 6, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

I don't mind a filibuster as long as you have to stand in congress and do it. No more of this hiding behind closed doors and doing it.

Posted by: easysoul | May 6, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse

Simply having a "majority" destroys accountability. The majority acts like a pack of wolves.

Posted by: IQ168 | May 6, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Simply having a "majority" destroys accountability. The majority acts like a pack of wolves.

Posted by: IQ168 | May 6, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

So in Ezra's fantasy world, we need to change to a parliamentary form of government so the majority can practice their own brand of tyranny, even as the majority is operating at the whim of party leadership more than they are lsitening to their constituents.

The current Democrat apparatus tries to force unpalatable legislation down the throats of the Republicans who were far more in tune with the American public on healthcare than the Obamanistas. Then they refuse to consider Republican concerns and suggestions and then have the nerve to howl over the filibuster.

All the while the Democrat Congress has funded a taxpayer funded Democrat voter machine in the form of ACORN. If it's not illegal....which somehow I guess it is sure as he11 is immoral.

Ezra, stick to the heavy subjects like whether it is fair to pay for dinner reservations. Anything deeper is beyond your ability to reason and interest in drilling down to the truth.

Neither of these pathetic parties in this two-party democracy has any bells on it, but constant schilling for one side or the other is hardly what the Fourth Estate should be doing. You and your ilk would have been perfectly at home working for PRAVDA as government propagandists. Where is your intellectual curiosity? Your integrity is long gone.

Posted by: buggerianpaisley1 | May 6, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

*The assumption here is that the will of the majority best serves us all. That is simply untrue.*

Hey, buddy, here's a suggestion: say what you're going to do, have an election, and then pass your law. I'll even give you the benefit of having a bunch of tiny loser states have the same amount of representation as larger, more successful states. If you can't cobble together a majority under those circumstances, then you need to stop whining and find something more useful to do with your life than screw over voters in need of relief.

It seems that what you consider most important is insulating politicians from the consequences of their beliefs, and I think that is a bad thing.

*Simply having a "majority" destroys accountability. *

If only there were some way to blunt the power of popular majorities, like, say, giving small states equal representation with big states.

Posted by: constans | May 6, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

All you folks who are yammering on about how the filibuster protects against a "tyranny of the majority" haven't learned a thing since your high school civics class, and much of that was wrong. The founders built several features into the structure of our govt to protect against such abuses, but the filibuster wasn't one of them. It is a product of the rules of the Senate and can be changed by the Senate.

Moreover, the filibuster was designed (largely by Southerners to protect slavery and, later, Jim Crow) to be used in extraordinary circumstances. In the last 20 years it has come to be used routinely--directly or by threatening to use it--to stop majorities from bringing up amendments, debating legislation, passing legislation, bringing up conference reports and confirming presidential nominations. Republicans have been especially proficient in using this tactic.

This is an abuse of process that is crippling the country. Ezra has it exactly right.

Posted by: Philip12 | May 6, 2010 5:46 PM | Report abuse

I would take you seriously, Ezra, if you had railed against the fillibuster back when the Democratic minority was using it to thwart the Republican majority from 2002 to 2006.

Now that it's being used against legislation you favor (because let's face it, you're a lib), suddenly the fillibuster is a bad idea.

Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. Just don't write a "woe is me" article if your party deep-sixes the fillibuster and then finds themselves getting steamrolled when, ineveitably, they become the minority party once again.

Posted by: Joe28 | May 6, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

I didn't hear these columnists complaining when the Dems did all the filibustering during the Bush years! Look what they did to the Bush nominees for the Supreme Court. It was a REAL witch hunt and all these folks did was egg them on. I'm done with ALL politicians in the next election but until then the LESS done the better it will be for this country!

Posted by: etshoney | May 6, 2010 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Joe28 & etshoney-

Please do your homework. The historical record is clear: Republicans resort to filibusters far more often than Dems. Don't take my word for it. Here's a piece from the American Enterprise Institute:

Posted by: Philip12 | May 6, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

The standard wisdom about the political world is that things never change. Then suddenly they do. The Rs totally rely on this bit of revelation and they get caught by it time after time. Now they are making themselves so obnoxious by using filibusters, holds, etc., secure in the belief that the tradition-bound old senate will never do anything drastic to change things, that even the most moribund Ds will be pushed to the edge. “Nuclear option” anyone?

Posted by: JamesOfDC | May 7, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

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