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Liberals love hate the filibuster

Enough, enough, I say, of the weeping and wailing on the left about the “bizarre habits of the Senate,” as my colleague E. J. Dionne put it today, that make us “no longer a normal democracy.” He, of course, is reflecting the enormous frustration among liberals over the requirement that legislation, including the Democratic health reform bill, must have a supermajority of 60 votes in the Senate to pass. Power, progressives cry, has passed from a majority to a self-indulgent, destructive Republican minority.

Those are tears of either crocodiles or partisans in the grip of amnesia.

Time was, and not too long ago, Senate Democrats and their liberal supporters were in love with the filibuster as a weapon to stop a simple Senate majority from carrying the day. That was only a few years back, when Senate Democrats were using the threat to block President Bush’s conservative judicial nominees. Then, the filibuster was being promoted as a bulwark against a right-wing assault on mainstream American jurisprudence.

In fact, liberals have a mixed history on the filibuster. We hated it when it was used to stall civil rights legislation in the '40s, '50s and '60s; loved it when tying the Bush administration up in knots; and now hate it when it now stands in our way. I wrote about this before. [“The Filibuster: A Tool for Good and Bad,” June 18, 2009].

My friends, dry your eyes, suck it up, and get on with it.

And please climb down off that high horse.

By Colbert King  | December 21, 2009; 2:12 PM ET
Categories:  King  | Tags:  Colbert King  
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Next: The Senate: the destroyed deliberative body


Ha ha! I am now a fan of King.

Posted by: enaughton27 | December 21, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Dear Mr. King,

Pardon me while I cry just a little while longer.

Filibusters are inherently undemocratic and truth be told, liberals had no business eating from that particular fruit during the Bush Administration. Krugman in the Times today reports just how pernicious this practice has become and the Republicans today are the worst offenders.

I recommend a signed commitment by anybody running for the Senate that they will work passionately to end this last undemocratic vestige of slavery, secession and state's rights. It's way past time...

Posted by: corbinb | December 21, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: JD15 | December 21, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

If there was a parliamentary procedure in the Senate that allowed the Majority Leader to pass any bill by fiat, I imagine we would get similar partisan reactions: it's a good thing when you're up, and a bad thing when you're down.

The point is, saying "each side is hypocritical" obscures how undemocratic it is.

The filibuster should not exist in its current form. Sure, getting rid of it will hurt the minority party. But both parties will be making the same tradeoff, while our country would have a more functional representative system as a whole. I'm willing to accept the policy consequences no matter who is in charge.

Posted by: sthompson907 | December 21, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Off the High horse? ... "We" would just like to be able to ride it. .... But it seems to be "occupied" ..... drifting .... there it is .... no ..... "It" seems to be occupied at the moment ..... by a "Ghost Rider" ........ fading again ....

Posted by: deepthroat21 | December 21, 2009 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Yes, this is a real paradox for the liberals. If we didn't have the filibuster to use a few years ago we might have a Supreme Court Justice Alberto Gonzales right now.
E.J. made a good point though. The Senate (and House, and electoral college) already have an unfair conservative tilt that denies D.C. a vote in Congress and gives Wyoming voters 10 times more power than California voters.
The real point is that we could be so much further ahead if it wasn't for the conservatives. I thought we hit rock bottom with Bush II. But man, we haven't seen the worst yet from these fools. We need electoral reform Bad. it used to work out when there were actual moderate Republicans but I don't think we'll see any of those come back for a long time.

Posted by: chickenhead | December 21, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

This ridiculous post by King is exhibit A in how conservatives suffer from world-reinforcing selective memory. Yes, Democrats threatened filibuster when on the outs, but the Republican's exercise of this procedural course is easily an order of magnitude or two larger. Check the facts. Every vote when Bush was in power was NOT preceded by a check for 60. The very language of talking about a 60 vote majority wasn't even in anyone's lexicon until this last year, the first year of Obama. And, you have not heard ANY of the Democratic leaders in Congress talking about a nuclear option. The Democrats are so emasculated that not even the sub-nuclear option of reconciliation, used liberally by the Republicans in a similar situation with reversed roles. There is NO comparison. The Republicans have amped up the vitriol and I say the can "intercourse the penguin" to quote one of my favorite lines from Monty Python. I have never hated that party more than I do now.

Posted by: lloydamy | December 21, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

The filibuster is a check on unbridled power by the majority party. Our Founding Fathers were wise indeed. The less that Washington does the better off we ALL are.

Posted by: Dionysis | December 21, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

So I was wondering about this - I hear some people suggest that republicans have taken the filibuster to a new level, and are using it to oppose (or at least heavily influence) absolutely anything Obama and the democrats try to do, while others suggest that dems have used it just as much before, and are just complaining now because it's their turn to suffer (i.e. what this article seems to say). I don't know history well enough - anyone have thoughts/comments?

And it's obviously so relative - in my mind, I'm sure I would agree w/ most uses of the filibuster by democrats - I'm surrounded by so many liberals that I have a hard time remembering that Conservative ideas aren't by default some crazy right wing fringe theories, but can actually represent a sizable majority of the public. But if I don't consciously keep that in mind, any use of the filibuster by dems make sense, because conservative ideas are often so off the map for me. But I'm sure it's the same for many conservatives - what seems like a really moderate idea to many democrats could seem like an absolutely insane idea that must be stopped immediately. Not sure what my point is, but if nothing else, obviously the filibuster is good for maintaining the status quo...

Posted by: aaronlawee | December 21, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Let’s talk about original intent and the Constitution. The Senate was meant to be a deliberative body that would represent the rights of the individual, sovereign states; it was not meant to be an obstructionist body beholding to moneyed interests to the detriment of the common wealth. The Senate was modeled on the British House of Lords. But today, the House of Lords no longer holds the power to thwart legislation; it may only delay. Today’s Senate is in fact, then, more aristocratic than the British Monarchy. Democrats may have temporarily filibustered Bush’s judicial nominees, but that was a rare and limited use of the procedure. Moreover, the Democratic filibusters were short lived and fell apart thanks to the Gang of Four or Fourteen or however many gutless cowards it took to cave to Republican threats to amend the rules to abolish the filibuster.

It comes down to this. The filibuster is an offensive weapon used primarily by Republicans to block progressive change, defend corporate America and stick it to the working and middle classes. Democrats, who attempt to use it defensively, are usually ineffective. Liberals, therefore, have a vested interest in abolishing this mutation of an aristocratic anachronism. Abolishing the filibuster will also serve the long term interest of our democracy. It allows liberal and conservative ideas to live and die of their own merits and faults.

Posted by: codexjust1 | December 21, 2009 5:43 PM | Report abuse

Please review your history.

The Republican Senators are doing nothing more than obstructing the passage of a bill which WILL pass. So, what's the point?

The GOP should change its abbreviation from GOP to FUD: Fear, uncertainty and doubt!

Posted by: repmisc | December 21, 2009 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Colbert King's timing was unfortunate coming the same day that Paul Krugman (as others have noted) wrote a reasoned piece backed by data that showed Republicans have overused this device and that it is not a constitutional provision. Instead the filibuster rule could be overturned several ways that he discusses.

What bothers me most is that Republican senators are increasingly following the part line and voting as a block. There's seldom been such a herd mentality as that in the supposedly deliberative Senate. It is that block voting that forces the compromises required to keep all 60 Democrats together.

My question is whether these Senators are being seen by their electors as behaving in their best interests.

Posted by: robmattles | December 21, 2009 5:55 PM | Report abuse

how about we stop pretending like this filibuster institution is anything like what it used to be

If it were a tool that was employed rarely because of its difficulty, I would be okay with it. But now instead of getting up and filibustering they SCHEDULE one that consists of a hollow threat.

Let's see our esteemed representatives get up and have to filibuster, old-school style. Make them pay for obstructing with their time instead of our money.

Posted by: ihatelogins | December 21, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse

The way I see it, you could have replaced the word "liberal" with "conservative," "Democrat" with "Republican," and lo and behold, the article is still truth. Please, don't make this just a liberal thing - conservatives are having amnesia attacks and forgetting they're supposed to hate this thing.

Posted by: ravensfan20008 | December 21, 2009 7:06 PM | Report abuse

I have read, over many sites, the whining and complaining about the use of the filibuster. Those on the left were happy when it was used to block conservative judicial nominees who were selected by Bush and now they are upset the same rules were used to attempt to block this health care bill, which many, many people have serious reservations about.

But if you want to eliminate the filibuster, go for it. But remember this. When the day comes, and that day will come, when we have a Conservative president and a Conservative controlled Senate, you can just about take it to the bank that a Conservative, who supports the repeal of Roe v Wade, will be nominated to the Supreme Court and WILL BE CONFIRMED, and there won't be anything any Leftist will be able to do to stop it, and then those of us who are pro-life will finally see the day when it will be overturned.

So, again I say if this is what you want, go for it. But remember, what goes around comes around!

Posted by: mrstat | December 21, 2009 7:16 PM | Report abuse

I agree with "chickenhead" above (not a sentence I ever expected to write). The more germane issue that Dionne brought up is the insane overrepresentation of people in tiny states in the Senate. Why should someone in Wyoming have 50X the power that someone in California has? There is no sanity, or fairness, or democracy in that.

I realize it has been so for time immemorial. For centuries prosecution for witchcraft was a revered tradition too. At some point, doesn't logic and rationality have to kick in?

Sixty percent of the public and 73% of our doctors believe we need a public option. Yet the nation's ailing health care system is stuck in the ER with a small minority of of uneducated, misinformed, FauxNews-addled tea baggers jumping up and down on its injured body. There's something wrong with that picture.

Posted by: B2O2 | December 21, 2009 7:32 PM | Report abuse

I miss sensible opinion. Thank God for Krugman.

Posted by: paul37 | December 21, 2009 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Our President needs to learn humility. He comes across as being arrogant and cold. He just won a major victory on health care reform and all we hear is the same old political rhetoric. He can not get away from Harvard. We are not students. He is not doing a good job as President and I have voters remorse.

Posted by: Senior-Advisor | December 21, 2009 7:58 PM | Report abuse

From Paul Krugman's recent column in NYT:

The political scientist Barbara Sinclair has done the math. In the 1960s, she finds, “extended-debate-related problems” — threatened or actual filibusters — affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980s, that had risen to 27 percent. But after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006 and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent.

70%?!! The Senate and its absurd system have finally been warped completely out of shape by the stupidity of the current occupants of that chamber. Get rid of the filibuster? Better yet, let's get rid of the Senate altogether - it's a useless anachronism of our history in any case - and rely on the House.

Posted by: stevebai | December 21, 2009 8:21 PM | Report abuse

The filibuster, as used by the republicans, is like the cartoon of a "polish sharpshooters pistol, (sorry about the political incorrectness) where the barrell and trigger are oriented to shoot the idiot who pulls the trigger.

They knew going in that America, in significant majority, wants national health care. They knew going in that Obama ran on that particular plank to enthusiastic crowds and polls, and announced it as an early priority in his administration.

They decided that they could use the filibuster to prevent Obama from accomplishing his stated objective. For most of the year, when they might have been working to craft a better system, tyhey were throwing tantrums and acting like spoiled children.

AND, they have stated that the tantrums will continue, no matter how badly they damage political comity, no matter how badly they poison the political debate, no matter how impossible it makes it for Obama to bring civility back to political discourse.

They pulled the trigger and shot themselves right between the eyes. When the center finally bestirs itself to rectify the situation, the Republican Party is dead as a major force, and may take its place along side the American Communist party, constantly wasting money on political campaigns that can accomplish nothing.

There was an awful lot of tar in the bucket McConnell tried to use to besmirch the Democrats, and it now mostly coats the entire Republican party. It will certainly attract and hold enough litter, dust, and feathers that virtually EVERY Republican running for office is now a much less attractive person, and much less charismatic, since charisma is not normally an attribute one looks for in spoiled children throwing tantrums.

What the Republicans have done with the filibuster is disgusting, but it only momentarily damaged the country.

Idealy it has irreparably damaged the republican Image.

Posted by: ceflynline | December 21, 2009 8:44 PM | Report abuse

"70%?!! The Senate and its absurd system have finally been warped completely out of shape by the stupidity of the current occupants of that chamber. Get rid of the filibuster? Better yet, let's get rid of the Senate altogether - it's a useless anachronism of our history in any case - and rely on the House. Posted by: stevebai "

Nothing so drastic is necessary. We simply need to demand adult behavior from our politicians. The Republicans having amply demonstrated that they don't grok such an alien idea, we need simply replace the Republicans.

Ross Perot, where are you now that we need you?

Posted by: ceflynline | December 21, 2009 8:49 PM | Report abuse

Yay for Colbert King!

Unlike EJ Dione, an honest man!

Yay for Colbert King!

Posted by: ZZim | December 21, 2009 10:47 PM | Report abuse

The filibuster IS a weapon the Republicans love to use. As is typical the claim they make is that the Democrats are the filibuster abuser when in fact it is the Republicans that have historically abused the use of it. Note that at this juncture the Republicans have attemped over 140 filibusters, over double the number any Democratic Senate has attempted. So any claim of high horsemanship is squarely in the Republican camp.

Posted by: hamkast | December 21, 2009 10:51 PM | Report abuse

Filibusters are wonderful. I'm a liberal and I'm glad they exist. But just like filibusters exist in the senate rules, so does reconciliation. If the Senate leadership weren't purely GUTLESS, they'd have used reconciliation to avoid the disaster we are now on the verge of; healthcare deform. Naturally, the insurance companies have bought their profits and deregulation from our senators. And the wingnuts have continued their disgraceful intrusion into the wombs of women. That's why I call it deform. It serves very little purpose to simply insure the uninsured, when the rape of the public at the hands of escalating premiums will continue unabated. This could have been avoided with reconciliation, but Reid is without the guts to pull it off.

Posted by: seve2yoo | December 21, 2009 11:43 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Colbert, for being one of the few columnists at this newspaper with integrity. Dionne and especially Krugman, at "The New York Times" wrote angry tirades at the Republicans using a filibuster, totally forgetting how Democrats have occasionally used it too, thereby completely undermining their opinions.

Sixty-seven votes were needed until relatively recently to end a filibuster, so sixty is not as onerous, especially as politics has become more polarized and partisan.

The Republicans may someday, hard to believe, control the House of Representatives, have sixty Senators and white house. Somehow I doubt if Dionne, Krugman and other hypocrites would then object to Democrats using the filibuster to oppose Republican attempts to pass reactionary legislation or repeal favored Democratic laws, such as the likely Obama/Reid/Pelosi health care bill. They would probably be demanding a filibuster then, in the name of liberalism, apple pie and progress.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | December 22, 2009 12:11 AM | Report abuse

there's use and then there's abuse. that is the objection as I understand it, and I agree.

Posted by: daphne5 | December 22, 2009 1:11 AM | Report abuse

The Democrats never used the filibuster this way, as the standard operating procedure to block virtually every measure being considered by the majority.

In case you hadn't noticed, which clearly you haven't, that's what the complaints now are about. It's used every time, not as a threat, not as a special occasion.

The Republicans have started to use the filibuster as a way to just say "no!" to any attempt to govern.

Your drawing an historical parallel, attempting to claim that the Democrats did the same under Bush, is ridiculous.

I think you're the one who needs a history lesson.

Posted by: Billy_Pilgrim | December 22, 2009 3:10 AM | Report abuse

So, what are conservatives going to run on in 2010 and 2012? It won't be on any legislation or measures they introduced and passed in regard to defense, international treaties, the economy or health care. What will they show the American people that they have done?

They can say, "Well, we were rude to the president, and refused to work with almost anybody, including many from our own party!" They can point to all their unsucessful blocking, impediments and general gumming-up of the wheels of government- but that has been an unsuccessful, waste of time and money as well. They can talk about the time they've spent challenging the president's birth certificate, or disproving melting ice caps or trying to block the trial of terrorr suspects in our nation's courts.

Won't those television campaign ads be persuasive? You bet they'll be!

Spit and hiss, Republicans- it makes you so likable, attractive and productive- not to mention electable.

Posted by: interactidiomas | December 22, 2009 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Correction to the writer who argues that filibuster is a means of checking "the tyranny of the majority" and that this somehow reflects the genius of the founders: first, the founders never wrote it into the Constitution; second, there should only be one "check" on "the tyranny of the majority:" the vote of the American people, who have the power to "fire" any majority in next election that fails in its duty to protect and defend "the general welfare for ourselves and out posterity." Note: the Constitution begins with "we the people," not, as many conservatives and secessionists would have it, "we the states."

Posted by: Cooper5 | December 22, 2009 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Regular reader here: I wondered why I couldn't remember something you wrote only six months, Mr. King, the referenced article was written in 2005, not 2009. seems like only yesterday. Will read the old article before making further comments, except, for now to say: Filibuster....bad!

Posted by: martymar123 | December 22, 2009 9:12 AM | Report abuse

The filibuster is a check on unbridled power by the majority party. Our Founding Fathers were wise indeed. The less that Washington does the better off we ALL are.

Posted by: Dionysis

Founding Fathers? The constitution created a Senate that passed bills by a majority vote, with a few narrow, specified exceptions.

The filibuster wasn't used until the 20th century. It has evolved by habit into a radical subversion of the constitution. All bills now must be passed by a supermajority of 60.

I think the Senators enjoy the added individual power that it gives them. But it is an undemocratic practice that needs to be fixed. They'll have to change the rules effective in 10 years, or some such period, so it doesn't favor the party in power.

Posted by: HuckFinn | December 22, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I suppose that the idea of a supermajority is that it forces both sides to be reasonable, knowing that one day they will be on the other end of the same process. As they both become more reasonable the different parties and factions will respond more to argument and tend to converge, both supporting the policies that rational argument supports. Doesn't seem to working, does it?

Posted by: MHughes976 | December 22, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

My goodness, the first time I have agreed with you in ages.
Of course each side bemoans it when they are in power and uses it when in the minority.
However without it, the US would be nothing more than a dictatorship where the majority could do whatever it wished with no checks or balances whatsoever.
And as far as I am concerned, this liberal democratic weeping over the GOP trying to delay is laughable. They have enough votes to do absolutely anything they want whenever they want. The only thing standing in their way is their own members.

Posted by: justmyvoice | December 22, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

King, Dionne, and others forget that it used to take 75 votes for cloture, so wailing about 60 is really a sissy complaint, especially when the Democrats own 60 votes, even if it mean wheeling poor Sen. Byrd in through the snow in the middle of the night every other day.
Unlike today, important legislation was passed with true bipartisan agreement.

King also manages to revise history.
It was the Democrats who routinely "stalled civil rights legislation in the '40s, '50s and 60s." They were not happy when LBJ called Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen for GOP assistance in breaking the Democratic filibuster to pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Bill.

The filibuster can be a useful tool to force bipartisanship or it can be a instrument of obstruction. At the old level of 75, it was a much more effective legislative instrument.

Posted by: parkbench | December 22, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

The Republicans didn't seem to mind wheeling Strom Thurmond in when they needed his vote.

Posted by: Alex_H | December 22, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Oh, my. I have long since ceased paying attention to these jerks----"any of 'em, all of 'em"(Ms.Palin).

I did appreciate the retrospective provided by the referenced column(again, that's 2005, not 2009). The old column is really worth looking at again, if only for the civil rights perspective addressed there.

I agree with Mr. King---the filibuster is but a tool which be used for good and or for ill, and has been, for both. It all depends on your point of view.

That was not a horse you saw, Mr.King. The mistake is understandable given the size of the balls.

(and speaking of cojones, the prize goes to the 4'11" senator from California who sent this Missouri reader an e-mail solicitation: "With the rest of the year consumed by the health care debate, that's going to leave me very little time for campaigning -- so I'm asking for your support to fill the gap and help us reach our fundraising goals before the December 31 deadline. Can I count on you?"
Huh? Does she think that the uninsured, underinsured, and those with pre-existing conditions who voted for Democrats in 2008
are made out of money? And at Christmas.

Posted by: martymar123 | December 23, 2009 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Mr. King, you never addressed the crux of the argument. Is it a good thing to need 60 votes to pass legislation? You can call democrats hypocrites and you would probably be right, but is the rule good for our democracy? Does it make any sense that if you win a state by .001% that you get all of that states electoral votes yet it takes sixty votes to pass legislation. Ever since I learned of the rule in my high school Government class, I thought that it was undemocratic. I would argue that filibustering judges is not the same since those lifetime appointments can not be repealed like legislation.

Posted by: ne_voice | December 23, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

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