Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Filibuster reform and power grabs

Red State digs up a post of mine from 2005 calling Bill Frist's effort to do away with the judicial filibuster a "power grab," and contrasts that unfavorably with my current advocacy for filibuster reform.

One problem: I've also described Democratic attempts to change the filibuster in mid-Congress as a power grab. See this post.

My views on the filibuster have definitely evolved since 2005. I was an amateur blogger in college back then, and it's been subsequent reporting on Congress that has convinced me that the filibuster is doing terrible damage to the institution. Plus, in the intervening five years, Republicans have made the filibuster historically ubiquitous:


But my views on power grabs haven't changed much: As I wrote the other day, I think it'd be pretty hard to defend changing the rules to weaken the minority after an election in which the minority wins the majority of the Senate elections.

That's why my preference has always been, and still remains, the creation of some sort of bipartisan committee that will propose reforms with the understanding that those rules will be adopted in six years, when we don't know which party will immediately benefit. Both sides should be thinking like potential members of the majority and of the minority when they consider reform. That gets you away from the problem of the power grab, which is about the short-term incentives of the majority, and, no less important, also gets you away from the minority's short-term incentive to maximize the power of obstruction.

Graph credit: By Norm Ornstein/The American

By Ezra Klein  |  July 28, 2010; 12:23 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Looks matter
Next: Lunch break


How would having a reform take place at some date in the future "get you away from the minority's short-term incentive to maximize the power of obstruction." If we are talking about a Republican minority, I think it would just cause them to go even more whole hog than they are now with a scorched earth policy, on the theory that it is the best way to ensure they are in the majority at the point the reform becomes effective. (Not sure they are right, but that is obviously their working theory.)

Then there is also the problem about whether we will have much of an economy left to work with if we have six more years like the last four.

Posted by: guesswhosue | July 28, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

not surprisingly, the redstate poster and the commenters are deliberately misrepresenting your position. they make no mention of the extreme rightwing republican abuse of the filibuster since obama's inauguration.

but, pesky facts like that are not what they deal in. they prefer facile interpretations and blatant misrepresentations in general and this is no exception.

if you can, ask the redstate poster how he can possibly justify the explosion of filibustering by rightwing republicans since obama took office.

how can any republicans justify that?

Posted by: blahgblogwordpresscom | July 28, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Six years? You've talked about this being almost a now-or-never congress on things like Health Care, Global Warming and other items, with the "never" being a catastrophe if we don't address them. The filibuster almost sunk Health Care after the notion of "we can't get 60 votes" was used to water down the bill over the course of the year. It nearly did the same to Financial Reform, which frankly should have been the easiest thing to pass given the national distates for Big Banks at the moment. The filibuster did sink addressing Global Warming via Congress. You're suggesting that we simply spend another six years of Congress failing to act at this critical period of our history?

I hate to keep dropping the phrase "Magic Ponies" in here, but do you honestly think that a six year period where things a "fixed" at the end of it are going to create an environment where the next six years are going to see Congress magically beging to function again?

It's broke. Fix it. We all know that there is no reason the Senate shouldn't operate like the House on straight majority votes and with far quicker action on bills. Fix it at the next chance before we go further off the cliff. Lordy Ezra... you've been writing for 18 months about what a trainwreck the Senate is and its central role in the mess we find ourselves. Drop the meme that the Dems have to be "nice" in address a body that's been kiled by GOP lockstep voting over the past two years.


Posted by: toshiaki | July 28, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I agree the Filibuster should not be abandoned; it serves a useful and important function. However, it is currently being abused on a scale not seen before.

The current rules allow for all of the benefits (stopping bills) and none of the downsides (actually standing up, talking and stopping the Senate from working). Go back to the original rules that required you to actually stand up and talk. Put some teeth back into the 'costs' of the Filibuster.

If they want to talk for 70 days, we'll have ample evidence of who is stalling the Senate and why.

Might even cause turnover in Congress. If you want your Senator to Filibuster, better to have a 45 year old doing it than an 85 year old.

Posted by: rpixley220 | July 28, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Ahh, the good old "veil of ignorance". Very Rawlsian of you. It makes perfect sense to me, but in order for it to happen, both parties would have to be interested in a fair outcome. Actually, take it a step back--both parties would have to acknowledge there's a problem in the first place.

"That's why my preference has always been, and still remains, the creation of some sort of bipartisan committee that will propose reforms with the understanding that those rules will be adopted in six years, when we don't know which party will immediately benefit."

Posted by: bucky_katt | July 28, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

I disagree. The Senate is a democratic institution. Majority rules should apply. I'd be ok with pushing for a soft-Filibuster, where additional discussions can be made for x # of days on a SPECIFIC set of bills, not every single freaking one. But after that period is done, there should be a hard vote on the bill, where simply majority moves it forward.

This is a Democracy. We should act like one. Filibuster is a mechanism in which elected officials of usually well over 60% of this country is subjected to "Tyranny of the Minority".

If Republicans win, fine. They get to play around at "Leaders". If Democrats win, fine, they get to do so. If either messes up, they get voted out. That's the whole idea behind having regular elections in a democracy.

Posted by: JERiv | July 28, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse


I understand your desire to have the filibuster reformed in a bipartisan and harmonious manner. But the stakes are too high for us to wait six years or longer for a responsive Congress.

We have at least 11 million people denied a path to citizenship and all the benefits and legal protections it entails. Immigration reform is almost impossible to pass with the filibuster. We have nearly 20 % of the labor force, unemployed, underemployed, or discouraged. A stimulus large enough to address this cannot garner 60 votes. The real suffering of these millions of real people should take precedence over some outdated Senate norm.

If the Democrats abolish the filibuster at the start of the next Congress, it will not be a “power grab”. Over a span of six years, the American people elected a majority of Democrats. If there is absolute unity among that majority party, it should be able to pass legislation. That’s how the system works.

You may fear the consequences of a GOP Senate majority. But most of their positive agenda entails cutting taxes, which can be done through reconciliation anyway. Their agenda is maintaining the status quo, which, thanks to the filibuster, they can do when in the minority. There is a chance they repeal some Democratic policies, but it will be difficult for them to find the votes. Health-care reform was truly the largest middle class tax cut, and once people have access to affordable health care , the GOP doesn’t want to be the party to take it away. If Democrats provide a path to citizenship, the Republicans don’t want to take it away and kiss away millions of votes from Hispanics, our fastest-growing demographic.

Because eliminating the filibuster puts so many progressive policies in the realm of the possible, and because the downside for progressives is quite limited, I believe every progressive group should give each Democratic senator an ultimatum: “If you don’t vote to abolish the filibuster, we will fund a primary challenger against you.” Any Democratic Senator who votes against filibuster reform will be providing us with a fake progressive majority; one whose members say “We support the agenda, but it doesn’t have the votes” only to deny any responsibility for denying it the votes. This upcoming vote on the rule change will be one of the most important votes in Congressional history. Don’t let your senator deny the progressive agenda any more up-and-down votes.

Posted by: wcampb17 | July 28, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, do you think you could get the Post's graphics department to supply larger versions of the graphs that you use in the links? You rely on graphic presentations of information more than any other Post writer, I think, yet the text on them is frequently so small as to be illegible. And when readers clicks on the graphic in hope of seeing a larger version, what we get is exactly the same size graph in a new window. Not helpful.

Posted by: rashomon | July 28, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

TODAY: "My views on the filibuster have definitely evolved since 2005. I was an amateur blogger in college back then, and it's been subsequent reporting on Congress that has convinced me that the filibuster is doing terrible damage to the institution."

2013 when Pres. Pawlenty and GOP senate change filibuster rules: "My views on the filibuster have definitely evolved since 2010. I was a Democrat water-carrier moonlighting as a blogger for WaPo back then, and it's been subsequent reporting done by my good friend Dave Weigel at Slate on the conservative movement that has convinced me we need a check on a overzealous GOP majority."

Posted by: cdosquared5 | July 28, 2010 6:04 PM | Report abuse

But Ezra, the filibuster works most to the advantage of the party that doesn't want to see any kind of change, is happy with a status quo that showers money on them and their friends. What incentive do the Repubs have to get rid of the thing? None.

Correct me if I am wrong, but if the Democrats had the guts, they could declare the filibuster dead at the beginning of the next session of congress. (the nuclear option) There would be loud wailing and gnashing of teeth from the right, but the public wouldn't understand what all the hubbub was about and would soon forget.

Seems far fetched that the Dems would ever have such courage, but sometimes, when things get over-the-top intolerable, even politicians do surprising things.

Posted by: JamesOfDC | July 28, 2010 11:06 PM | Report abuse

I almost always agree with you Ezra, but you are wrong on this one. The status quo loving Republicans have no incentive to abolish the filibuster, in six or sixty years.

I second wcampb17. This bogus Senate "institution" is so wrongly used by Repubs that the harshest measures are justified in getting rid of it. It is hard to imagine the Dems having enough courage to do it, but sometimes, when things get so over-the-top intolerable, even politicians can do surprising things.

Posted by: JamesOfDC | July 28, 2010 11:19 PM | Report abuse

The question with Ezra's idea is if we are willing to put up with 6 years of a pure obstructionist Senate. If the dems become the minority they will obstruct too. Their constituents will demand it as pay back for the repubs. And it only takes one to filibuster, or threaten to filibuster, or to place a secret hold. We can thank the Repubs abuse of the filibuster for setting the standard.

The reality is that the repubs are already taking their obstructionist power grab now. Simply put the filibuster is an obstructionist loophole, and will ultimately have to be dropped or seriously limited/reformed in order for the Senate to return toward being an effective legislative body. The party who drops it will ultimately be in the majority, and seen as a power grabber, but that does not mean it should not be dropped or that we should allow our government to stretch to a halt for 6 years.

I say we should drop it as soon as it can be, which means in practical terms at the beginning of the new Congress.

Posted by: chefbrian2 | July 30, 2010 5:50 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company