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Senate not the special snowflake it thinks it is

Jon Chait punctures the pretensions of the U.S. Senate:

Most Democratic Senators, especially older ones, are institutionalists. They believe in the Senate as a rarified place of bipartisanship and thoughtful compromise. They also have come to value rules that increase the power of individual Senators, who are like Gods in Washington compared to mere members of the House.

In reality, the Senate does not function in anything like the idealized way that Senators imagine. It's the House with a supermajority requirement (except for the budget.) ... the old rare use of the filibuster was an unstable equilibrium. You can't have a competitive system where one side can use its most powerful weapon anytime it chooses but is expected not to do it that often. If baseball teams were allowed to deploy two extra fielders any time they wanted, but were expected to save the move for moments when they really needed a stop, how long would it take before every team always deployed 11 fielders?

When you talk about how the Senate rules are being misused, the quick rejoinder is often that the problem isn't the rules, but polarization and bad behavior and opportunistic leadership. We don't need to change the rules, some say, we need to change how they're used. Unfortunately, I've not yet heard of a proposal that would do this.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 28, 2010; 2:52 PM ET
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One proposed solution has suggested that a better majority leader might help. Consider the words of former Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove (speaking on 10 March 2010):

"First of all, it is my belief that the fault is not in the rules but in the Senators if the Senate is not working well. The Senate has worked exceedingly well in the past, both under a rule which required two-thirds to end debate, as was the situation when Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader, and when it was changed to sixty [three-fifths], which was the situation when Robert Byrd was the majority leader. And it worked well because both of those leaders knew how to play the game. And it is a game. It is a game in which the Senate plays a very different role than the House of Representatives and anything that would try to transform the Senate into the situation you have in the House of Representatives I think would be a disaster.


"Hard-working majority leaders who know how to play the game can operate very successfully in the United States Senate under its rules, whether they were the old rules before 1975 or the new rules after 1975.

More available via C-SPAN at

Posted by: rmgregory | July 28, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, your comment at the end reminds me of the attitude of economists when they acknowledge that humans are frequently not "self-interested maximizers," but go on to argue that if your institutions aren't designed to withstand self-interested, maximizing behavior, the institutions aren't likely to be very robust. The trick is finding rules and structures that handle self-interest without exacerbating and promoting it as the one and only working pattern of behavior.

Posted by: JonathanTE | July 28, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Surber's comment (regarding another topic) is meaningful when considering Senate rules:

"One purpose of making some rules more difficult to change than others is to prevent a brief wave of fanaticism from undoing decades or centuries of refined structure. It is self-paternalism, our chosen insurance against our anticipated weak moments. But that purpose is not met unless the two-tier (or multi-tier) system also creates a logical hierarchy in which the less mutable rules take logical priority over the more mutable rules. Otherwise the more mutable rules could by themselves undo basic patterns. If supermajorities and the concurrence of many bodies are necessary to protect the foundations of the system from hasty change, then that protective purpose is frustrated if those foundations are reachable by rules that require only a simple majority of a single legislature."

Posted by: rmgregory | July 28, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Reminds me of the story about the physiology of the body. For all the intellect of the brain, strength of the muscles, stamina of the heart, transpiration of the lungs, endocrine production of the glands; it turns out every part sickens and the body can't function when the a--h--- does not do its job.

Posted by: BertEisenstein | July 28, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Again, Ezra, a real problem is the lack of central authority in the Democratic Caucus. If Reid, or his successor, were to have the authority to assign committee membership and Chairs, then you can bet that (1) Liebermann would jump ship and (2) Reid would have 57-58 procedural votes every time.
So, once again, this is delaying the inevitable but also adding to the chance of radical reform because this change in caucus rules only takes 29 votes currently, fewer after the next election knocks off several Democrats.

Posted by: ctown_woody | July 28, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Another "proposal" would be to vote out every Democrat running for Senate this time around.

Posted by: clawrence12 | July 28, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

The problem is there is no 'cost' to using the Filibuster. as ctown_woody points out, this is exaggerated by the lack of any spine out of Sen. Reid.
The Filibuster used to require you to actually stand up and talk, to not relinquish the floor. If you did, your objection ended.
Go back to that so there are significant costs to filibustering such as the Senate literally not getting anything done. It's also 'crystal' clear who is doing it.
That clarity will shine light on the process and reduce it's use to times when they decide the 'bad publicity' is worth it. (basically how it was intentioned me thinks)

Posted by: rpixley220 | July 28, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Clawrence12 has the best idea I have heard in a long, long time!


Posted by: my4653 | July 28, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

The folks in the senate don't want to filibuster to go away. It gives the minority power (which either side can find itself in) and gives the majority deniability. "Hey, look, I voted for that crazy legislation my lovable lunatic fringe wants, but what can I do? It got the filibuster all over it."

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | July 28, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

And there are those in the general public that often feel that the government getting nothing done is the government at it's very best.

First, do no harm.

Gridlock is good for that.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | July 28, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

Which party has been abusing the filibuster?

We know who it is.

Posted by: JRM2 | July 28, 2010 7:22 PM | Report abuse

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