Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
Posted at 3:42 PM ET, 01/ 4/2011

Why 'make them filibuster' won't work

By Ezra Klein

While reporting out this history of filibuster reforms, I came across Steve Smith's comprehensive and useful report (pdf) on the way Senate practices have evolved since the mid-20th century or so. Toward the end, he considers some of the ideas for remaking the filibuster and dismisses the "make them filibuster" proposal Democrats seem to prefer. Imagine, Smith says, a majority faced with the opportunity to really force the minority to conduct an extended filibuster:

First, the majority must consider whether forced filibustering is likely persuade at least some senators, or perhaps the leadership of the whole minority party or faction, who have already decided to oppose cloture to change their minds. They usually conclude that it will not. In most cases, minority senators already have decided that obstructionism is popular at home. And, while there is a chance the some voters will think ill of an obstructionist minority party, there is little evidence that voters’ view of the minority procedural moves have an effect on vote intentions independent of their policy views. Moreover, minority senators can conduct extended debate one senator at a time with little inconvenience to themselves. It is true that a filibuster may delay action on other legislation favored by some members of the minority, but minority senators bet, usually correctly, that the majority wants action on the backlogged legislation even more than they do.

Second, the majority—especially a majority party—pays a high price for truly extended debate. A lengthy debate forces the majority party to produce a quorum on the Senate floor and makes it difficult for senators to conduct business in committees or at home during the filibuster. Inevitably, the majority party is subject to criticism by its opponents and commentators for its unwillingness to compromise with the minority, whether or not the minority is willing to consider compromise, and for its misplaced priorities as other
legislation—important reauthorizations, essential appropriations—is held up. Inevitably, some majority party or faction members, facing a cohesive minority, begin to demand that the leaders move on to other matters.[...]

In fact, history is not kind to majority leaders who insist on real filibusters. The last time a majority forced extended “real” filibustering was in 1987 when a Democratic majority wanted to pass campaign finance reform. Majority Leader Byrd interrupted consideration of a defense bill—also subject to a filibuster for most of that summer—to bring up the campaign finance bill and kept the Senate on the campaign finance bill for nearly two weeks. He forced seven cloture votes. Despite the fact that Byrd had at least a five‐vote majority for the bill and showed remarkable determination, the largest vote in favor of cloture came on the first vote, with absentees diminishing his count on subsequent votes. Byrd set aside the campaign finance bill when another important measure was ready for floor consideration.

By Ezra Klein  | January 4, 2011; 3:42 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The business community wants policy, not people
Next: An anti-poverty program that works


I tend to think the "make them filibuster" idea won't really work that well. What people ignore is that the reason the filibuster was reformed in the first place was that old-school talkathon-style filibusters *worked*, since it was ultimately bringing all business to a halt hurt the majority party more than the minority.

That said, this would be an improvement over the status quo in that routine business and less controversial bills or nominations wouldn't get held up. And it would also create an important precedent for new rules changes. Down the road, I suspect senators will need to actually abolish the filibuster entirely and institute strict limits on debate followed by a majority vote - in other words, the system that nearly every other legislative body in the democratic world uses.

Posted by: Isa8686 | January 4, 2011 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Isn't one part of Udall's proposal that the minority must keep 41 on the floor or cloture can be invoked by the majority?

Posted by: _SP_ | January 4, 2011 4:13 PM | Report abuse

"...the system that nearly every other legislative body in the democratic world uses."

Yeah, let's look to Europe. Where have we heard *that* before?

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | January 4, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse

I believe "make them filibuster" will work for eliminating secret holds and all sorts of mundane confirmations.

If it extends debate (real debate, mind you) on important issues, that may be a good thing!

Posted by: will12 | January 4, 2011 4:27 PM | Report abuse

So what sort of reform WOULD cause unacceptable pain to an obstructionist minority? Since I believe in majority rule, that's what I think our elected leaders should be looking for. If they don't find a way to do that gracefully, eventually all this obstructionist protocol will be swept away completely by some majority that simply stops putting up with it.

Posted by: janinsanfran | January 4, 2011 4:31 PM | Report abuse

_SP_, yeah, I think it only makes sense to "make them filibuster" if you also put the onus on the filibustering Senators to maintain 41 members present to keep the filibuster going rather than requiring the majority to maintain as close to 61 as they can muster at all times.

Posted by: MosBen | January 4, 2011 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Didn't Merkley say something about how they would require 5 filibustering senators to be on the floor for the first 24 hours, 10 for the next 24 hours, and then 20 from that point on. It seems that on really important issues, the majority could get an up or down vote.

Posted by: wcampb17 | January 4, 2011 4:55 PM | Report abuse

let's start with the simple solution
make them filibuster for real
If it turns out that doesn't work, then move on.
Occum's razor, ya know

Posted by: newagent99 | January 4, 2011 6:12 PM | Report abuse

What Smith's saying is that forcing a filibuster is really no worse that than threatening one. Either way, the Senate is stalled until the filibuster ends or is forced to end.

If so, then why not make the minority do the deed and pay the price for their principles or politics? As it stands, there's no consequence to the minority, no cost. They make the majority do the work of forcing cloture while the minority sits back and smiles.

Posted by: tomcammarata | January 4, 2011 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, thank you, tomcammarata.

This is a standard logical fallacy: We're not comparing "make them filibuster" to "everything works just great." We're comparing it to our current broken system where the majority doesn't pass anything of substance anyway, and mundane work still is held up on the mere threat of a filibuster. And under the current system, no one has to take responsibilities for his or her actions.

There is no reason for Smith to focus his points on how a filibuster hurts the majority and none of them on how it hurts the minority. The majority has the power to take everything the minority wants off the table as well. The minority also is subject to criticism by opponents and commentators for its unwillingness to compromise.

It's laughable. By running away from forcing the minority to stand up and take responsibility for halting the government, you just hand them the power before they even ask.

What a weak, ineffective, cowardly majority it is that doesn't even believe in its own position enough to stand behind it at the first sign of a threat by its opponents.

Posted by: dpurp | January 4, 2011 10:30 PM | Report abuse

Wow did you guys even read the article? It said:
"Second, the majority—especially a majority party—pays a high price for truly extended debate. A lengthy debate forces the majority party to produce a quorum on the Senate floor and makes it difficult for senators to conduct business in committees or at home during the filibuster."
In other words a "real filibuster" is tougher on the majority then the current way. Because the majority has to keep their quorum on the floor...And the majority is LESS likely over time to have the votes needed to break it. Somehow you guys think it is "being tougher" for the majority to do things that damage it's own chances for passage?? Huh? So why in the world would want your party to take an action that lessons it's chances of passing something just to "appear tough"? I'm beginning to think its a macho thing.

Posted by: SueB4 | January 5, 2011 8:14 AM | Report abuse


No, I'm not talking about being tough for the sake of being tough, I'm talking about being pragmatic over the course of your term in the majority.

Right, forcing a filibuster hurts the majority more than the minority in the short term, just like disciplining my child takes more effort and distracts me from doing what I should be doing.

But, three things:

1. Giving in to the minority at the threat of a filibuster also lessens my chances of passing something I want. By definition.

2. Giving in almost every time on almost every bill amounts to a lot less of what I want overall than giving in more on a single bill.

3. While the majority is forced to seek the votes, it also is showing the world what it stands for and what the minority stands for. If its position truly is the right one, the minority will be hurt more.

In the long run, there are better ways for both parties to work together, which means the majority getting what it wants, and even the minority sometimes. But we'll never see those as long as the minority can threaten a filibuster and still get what it wants.

Posted by: dpurp | January 5, 2011 8:01 PM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2011 The Washington Post Company