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Posted at 9:38 AM ET, 12/13/2010

What the Filibernie showed about filibusters

By Ezra Klein

There's a line of argument that holds that the problem in the U.S. Senate isn't too many filibusters, but too few. Sure, the minority is constantly objecting to bills, but they never really filibuster. Harry Reid never forces them to take to the floor and talk it out. If he did -- if the American people could see Republicans standing against unemployment benefits or tax cuts for the middle class -- the public would turn against the Republicans and the Republicans would fold. Jonathan Bernstein disagrees. A modern filibuster is not a rambling timewaster like the speeches of yore, but an incredibly valuable free media opportunity that members of the minority will use to their advantage:

In the old days, Senators engaged in a filibuster would read recipes or otherwise stray off topic. No need for that now! Not only do Senators have large staffs who could produce content, but there's a whole big internet available. If I were advising the GOP in that situation, I'd tell them to let conservative bloggers know that they can have their big chance for immortality: post something good, and a Republican Senator will read it on the floor of the Senate....Excellent way to rev up the conservative blogosphere, no? Meanwhile, by forcing Republicans to perform a "real" filibuster, Democrats would transform a 24 hour network that millions of Americans get in their homes into a 24 hour Republican propaganda outlet. How is that possibly good for the Democrats?[...]

Now, do any liberals think that Sanders is humiliating their side of the argument? I very much doubt it. He is, of course, not reading recipes or reading from the phone book. He's been staying on topic, more or less, giving a lengthy defense of his ideas about government and policy and how, in his view, the tax deal undermines policies he favors. Indeed, as I've listened on and off today, he's read from Ariana Huffington and quoted Bruce Bartlett -- just as I predicted! Well, sort of. The real question is: does anyone doubt that a dozen Senators could keep this going, with more or less the same quality of rhetoric, indefinitely?

And this doesn't go into the hidden currency of the Senate: time. Spending two weeks on a filibuster that won't ultimately break means letting judges go unconfirmed, treaties go unratified, defense bills go unauthorized. Pundits tend to look at each issue separately, and they get angry when Harry Reid's strategy doesn't seem optimal for that issue. But Reid is looking at the Senate's whole schedule and trying to figure out how to get the maximum amount done. And given the current rules of the Senate -- and the norms of the Senate's short workweek, which Democrats and Republicans both defend -- that means making swift decisions about what can't be done, and so shouldn't be given any more of the Senate's precious time.

By Ezra Klein  | December 13, 2010; 9:38 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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"But Reid is looking at the Senate's whole schedule and trying to figure out how to get the maximum amount done."

Missing from your analysis is any acknowledgment that the Democrats find themselves in this predicament due to their decision to postpone "tough" votes until after the election for the lame-duck session.

I recognize that you are making a general argument about filibustering and the Senate, but it still appears that the Democrats left too many items for the lame duck for tactical reasons, and now it has come back to bite them. There really is no excuse for not passing the regular appropriations bills on time, given the size of their majorities in both houses and the availability of reconciliation rules in the Senate specifically for budget related items.

Posted by: jnc4p | December 13, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

So essentially, the filibuster exists as an empty threat ensuring minority rule.

Posted by: stonedone | December 13, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

the healthy hunger free kid's act of 2010 was just signed.
why dont howard dean and bernie sanders talk about any of the good accomplishments that happen.
as a doctor, and a progressive, why couldnt dean mention that this morning?
doesnt it matter to him?
not a word.
i guess that promoting any positive discussion of the good things done by this administration just dont fit with the "message" of" their" agenda.
as a lifelong democrat, i dont appreciate that.

Posted by: jkaren | December 13, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

And as someone commented:

"Now all of America knows what Pesach is like at the Sander's household."

Chris Gaun

Posted by: chrisgaun | December 13, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I think you miss the point. It wouldn't really matter what is being said on the floor -- no one but people like you, EK, would watch -- but that the Rs are actually filibustering to keep money from going to 9/11 responders.

Posted by: AZProgressive | December 13, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

So wait, the filibuster rules aren't different than they used to be? in that the reason the GOP uses the filibuster so freely is that Reid never actually *makes* them do it?
Yet another strike against Reid's already tattered 'leadership'.
Would a filibuster take time? you bet. Sometimes you need to inflict a little pain to save the patient. If the GOP knew that they would be called out on their filibuster bluffs, they wouldn't use it as much. Reid has been caving into to these bullies for 4 years now. Time for him to go.

Posted by: rpixley220 | December 13, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

I find the "hidden currency" argument much more convincing than Bernstein's. The public would soon tire of this "free media opportunity" for politicians to elaborate on their ideologies (I imagine after 2 or 3 days at most), and the media would turn its attention not to the rhetoric, but rather to how the filibuster is *tangibly* holding up essential government business. Pressure would mount, mostly on the filibustering party, to end the obstruction, and any compromise between the two parties would most likely be much more favorable to the majority than the minority ("OK, we'll end this thing--which we really have to do anyway--if you give us this token concession").

While I agree that Congressional Democrats really screwed up in delaying action on the tax cuts until the lame duck session (but that one could also successfully argue that the end result is actually better overall than what they originally set out to achieve), I agree with the argument that Reid's position of trying to get as much accomplished as possible is both unappreciated by most pundits and, more importantly, the right way to go.

However, I do think that there are cases where forcing a real, honest-to-goodness filibuster is actually worth the expenditure of that "hidden currency", and that it won't actually take up as much time as some fear. For goodness' sake, they should at least *try* it at some point to see how it works--I can guarantee you that, upon winning a Senate majority, Republicans won't be so timid in trying out unorthodox strategies, some of which are bound to be successful...

Posted by: billy_burdett | December 13, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

The filibuster appeals to the base. When tea bagger republicans filibuster, nobody but tea baggers will pay attention to what they say. Just as when Sanders does it, only liberals really paid attention.

Everyone else who lives outside of that cesspool that is Washington DC, or the cesspool that is the tea bagger movement, will be wondering why the senator is wasting time.

Of course, the gutless Democratic leadership would have to grow a pair before they realized that reality, and forced the Republicans to back their constant mouth running with action.

Posted by: hopeadoped | December 13, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Ezra Klein writes
"And this doesn't go into the hidden currency of the Senate: time. Spending two weeks on a filibuster that won't ultimately break means letting judges go unconfirmed, treaties go unratified, defense bills go unauthorized."

So why not schedule a vote for a bill that the majority of Americans support, but Republicans oppose - say, the extension of the irresponsible Bush tax cuts & extension of unemployment compensation, to pick a couple random issues - and let the Repubs talk their heads off? While they're inside yapping, send various Dems out to the front steps for a presser going through the things that aren't getting done in the meantime.

"The Republicans would rather talk for 12 days straight to avoid a vote on extending unemployment benefits, meanwhile forcing postponement of all other business of the Senate." etc, etc.

Posted by: bsimon1 | December 13, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

2 flaws with the argument here:

1.-Republicans already HAVE a 24hr news outlet, it's called FOX, and it's way more exciting for their base to watch than C-SPAN. Sure, a real filibuster gives them one more platform, but at least it lets America see THEM as the obstructionists.

2.-Harry Reid isn't going to get anything done anyway. Once the GOP gets what it wants--the millionaire bailout--Reid has no more cards to play. Is the GOP *really* going to pass DREAM, confirm judicial nominees, and sing kumbaya once they get their ransom? You really believe that? I have a bridge to sell you...

The Democrats just don't get it: gridlock sucks, but it's better than losing everything. And losing sucks, but it's better to fight back and lose than to just roll over. See e.g., health care reform: the GOP lost that round, but won the elections. If they had just immediately cut a deal, Obama would have gotten a lot more stuff done on his agenda (as the GOP will try to do now), and the public narrative never would've shifted back towards the GOP.

Obama has forgotten what community organizing is all about: COMMUNITY (not backroom deals) and ORGANIZING--the idea that a diffuse base with little traditional leverage can be mobilized to displace entrenched interests. He needs to USE his base. And wake up from this delusion that the GOP is actually interested in bipartisanship, or that swing voters will see his "compromise" (total, sorry loss) as anything other than an admission of error.

Just hope Canada (China?) will bail us out when we go down like Greece....

Posted by: kellyinbrazil | December 14, 2010 5:41 AM | Report abuse

Wow, this is such a bad argument, I don't even know where to begin.

1. No one cares what senators say. No one watches C-SPAN to get the latest on the Senate. No one except wonks in Washington. Any long speeches that are made will be boiled down in the media to a few soundbites and paraphrasing: "During his filibuster, conservative Senator X read for 45 minutes from the Conservablog ... " In other news, dog bites man.

2. The media love a good fight. They'll spend at least as much time quoting angry members of the majority as the filibustering minority. If the majority really feels its position is right, it should welcome this opportunity.

3. "Spending two weeks on a filibuster that won't ultimately break means letting judges go unconfirmed, treaties go unratified, defense bills go unauthorized."

Exactly. By what logic is this the fault of the party that wants to get these things done rather than the party that is blocking these things? This is a *huge* disincentive for the minority to filibuster. The majority party should shout this daily.

4. The Democrats remind me of parents afraid of their temperamental children. At the first sign of a tantrum, they cave. What message does this send to the child? Threatening a tantrum is as good as having one, and it's a lot less trouble. It costs them virtually nothing. There's no better way to ensure future tantrums than by rewarding them.

And there's no better way to ensure another batch of pushover Democrats than to make excuses for their weaknesses.

The Dems should have pushed back as hard as the Republicans pushed them. Threaten a filibuster on the health care bill? OK, the public option is now back in. Threaten again? Single payer.

The reason the filibuster is a problem is because the majority is afraid of it. Period.

Cue FDR ...

Posted by: dpurp | December 14, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

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