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The limits of filibuster reform

By Dylan Matthews

Obama has expressed his frustration with the filibuster before, but he seems to amping up his criticism. He brought it up twice yesterday, first at a meeting with liberal bloggers ("the damage that the filibuster I think has done to the workings of our democracy are at this point pretty profound") and then on "The Daily Show" (skip to 6:30):

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Barack Obama Pt. 3
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

This is all to the good, and I hope some progress gets made at the beginning of the next Congress. Regardless of which party holds a majority, it'll be a very slim one, and so I'd imagine Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would be as enthusiastic about chipping away at cloture requirements as Majority Leader Harry Reid or Chuck Schumer.

That being said, while filibuster reform will probably reduce gridlock, there's no way it will leave a party with a real majority. Tom Udall is the only senator who appears open to eliminating the cloture requirement altogether, and even he's not explicit about that. Michael Bennet's proposal only reduces the requirement to 55, and then only in certain circumstances. Tom Harkin's plan has a gradually reduced cloture requirement, which could clog up Congress even more by forcing the majority to wait weeks until the requirement is low enough. And some proposals, like Frank Lautenberg's, don't even change the cloture requirement at all.

Given inevitable opposition from Senate traditionalists in either party, the best reform I can see realistically passing is something like Bennet's. Looking at Nate Silver's latest probability chart (look under "Probable Senate Outcomes"), there seems to be about a 15-16 percent chance of a Democratic majority of 55 or greater, and no chance of a Republican majority of that size. So even in the best-case scenario, we could see Democrats go from scrounging together a couple of Republican votes to get to 60 to scrounging those votes together to get to 55. It's progress, but it won't make the next Congress a whole lot more productive.

Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Dylan Matthews  | October 28, 2010; 11:13 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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The phrase "Given inevitable opposition from Senate traditionalists in either party" brings to mind a video of both faces of Obama -- the one where he, as a traditionalist Senator, vigorously argued against filibuster reform, and the one where he, as President, argues the opposite point of view -- at The Blaze (see )

Posted by: rmgregory | October 28, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Who says we need to get rid of the Filibuster? The problem is not the concept of the filibuster but its implementation.
The problem is that there is no 'cost' to filibustering, no effort required, nothing. Return it to the days when filibustering meant actually standing up and speaking forever. Allow the minority to hold things up when it's *really* important, but make the cost of that hold up, the clear and present situation that the entire Senate is roadblocked until the filibuster is abandoned or the majority gives in.
As a unabashed liberal, I really don't want to contemplate what GWBush would have been able to do if there was never a threat of filibuster. We need it, it's useful, but it needs to have appropriate cost to use it or it will be abused as we have seen in the last 2 years.

Posted by: rpixley220 | October 28, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Just to give further credence to Ezra's skepticism, note that the previous night on the Daily Show Ted Kaufman fully embraced the GOP apologist line that the Senate is inefficient by design, with the implication being that no structural reform is needed.

Posted by: RyanD1 | October 28, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

One problem I predict we'll see in the next cycle is abuse of the 'unanimous consent' stuff. The Tea Party types will relish in shutting things down by simply not agreeing to consent on anything they disagree with.
This is how the filibuster should work, you can stop things, but it's crystal clear *who* is doing it.
The 'anonymous holds' however are something that needs to be removed.

Posted by: rpixley220 | October 28, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra and Dylan,

Is there any hope that the senate will adopt other reforms that effectively neuter the filibuster?

Requirements like 55% of these present (rather than those that exist) vote for cloture. Or requiring that Senators talk, actually filibuster, in order to "filibuster" would probably get the job done. And/or get rid of the crazy 30 hour "ripening" requirements.

There are plenty of ways to skin this mangy cat.

Any hope?

Posted by: bswainbank | October 28, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Nothing will get done now anyway. The filibuster should have been done away with right after Franken was seated. We might have had a public option in the health care plan.
Keep the filibuster because democrats might need it in two years.

Posted by: seemstome | October 28, 2010 7:56 PM | Report abuse

The post ended a bit to soon. It "won't make the next Congress a whole lot more productive" than the current congress, but as you frequently note the current congress was extraordinarily productive. If you meant "won't make the next Congress a whole lot more productive" than the next Congress would otherwise be, you can't just note that Democrats will still need the votes of Republican senators.

Of course it might well be that Republicans will need the votes of a few Democrats (and Connecticut for Liebermans). Now that's a whole different story. I'm pretty sure they would be able to get the Senate to pass a lot of compromises which will be turned back into the Republicans original proposal in conference committee. But then again, that's just what they did under the current rules.

Posted by: rjw88 | October 28, 2010 7:59 PM | Report abuse

Do you have to have a 60-vote majority to approve the rules of the Senate?

Posted by: jjhare | October 28, 2010 9:25 PM | Report abuse

Ezra and Dylan,

I have a question for you:

Would it really be better for the Democrats to hang on to the House and/or the Senate?

With the filibuster the Republicans will prevent Democrats from passing anything that will help the country substantially anyway, so wouldn't it be better to have nothing done, and the country possibly in dire straits in 2012, with the public partly blaming the Republicans?

If Democrats hang on to the House and Senate, the Republicans still stop anything that will substantially help the country, and then in 2012, the vast majority of voters, who don't understand the filibuster, and don't follow the workings of congress, say, look at this disaster – you Democrats had the Presidency and both houses of congress, and you did nothing, and let this happen, we're voting for Palin and the Tea Party gang, who will repeal Obamacare, give tens of trillions in tax cuts for the rich, appoint even more radical supreme court justices, and who knows what else – have scientists flogged – in their effort to turn us into a third world country.

But if Democrats lose the House, or especially both the House and Senate, then the same stopping of anything substantially good for the country happens anyway due to the filibuster, and the Democrats sad unwillingness to abolish it, but now the public says both parties are to blame for this disaster, the Republicans controlled Congress.

Of course, there are other factors, when the Republicans shut down government, who will the public blame? When the Republicans impeach Obama on frivolous charges, who will the public blame? And this depends greatly on how well – or shamefully – the mainstream press does its job. But all things considered, would it actually be better for the Democrats and our country for the Republicans to win congress?

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | October 29, 2010 4:04 AM | Report abuse

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