Will An Anti-Filibuster Campaign Have Legs? Should It?

I think its fair to say that at least the Democrats have been campaigning with a dream of having 60 for a very long time. And the American people gave them a gift, and basically they're squandering it. Any organization needs to decide how it wants to hold itself accountable. But to me there's a question of what are the expectations amongst Democrats in terms of governing? What's the social contract? -- Andy Stern, SEIU

To their credit, the Village Blogs have been writing a lot about the problems with the filibuster (see, e.g., Ezra Klein.) Two questions arise - (1) is eliminating the filibuster a good idea?; (2) is there a chance in hell of eliminating it? My answers are (1) I am for eliminating the filibuster for legislative measures and for Executive Branch appointments but decidedly against elimination of the filibuster for Judicial Branch appointments. Indeed, the filibuster is not used at all for Supreme Court nominees and it should be. And (2) there is not a chance in hell of eliminating the filibuster. There will be a single payer health care system first. Why? Because the filibuster empowers individual Senators in ways that no other procedural device provides. Do Presidents hand back power? Neither do Senators. More . . .

That said, I am all for fighting the quixotic fight, especially in the short term. Why? Because if you make a lot of noise about the filibuster, it could impact short term behavior by Senators inclined to use the filibuster. I do not mean Republicans, who could not care less. I mean Democrats. After all, in theory, the filibuster should not even be an issue right now. Democrats have 60 in their caucus, enough to defeat any filibuster attempt.

While the filibuster is a long term institutional problem for the Senate, the actual problem that Democrats face right now is that it is a crappy political organization unable to maintain party discipline. Let me put it this way, if it was 60 Republicans, there would never ever be a filibuster. And we would not be having any discussions about the filibuster.

In essence, the discussion of the filibuster camouflages the actual problem Democrats face - the political party stinks. The Democratic Party leader is weak and the Democratic leadership in the Senate toothless. And this impacts the Democratic Party's claims to be able to govern.

In the end it means that the Democratic Party can not be trusted in its political campaigns. Not because they are being untruthful in their platform, though they often are. But rather because even if they believe what they say they believe, they can not enact the initiatives they claim to support. In his interview with Ezra, Andy Stern said:

I think its fair to say that at least the Democrats have been campaigning with a dream of having 60 for a very long time. And the American people gave them a gift, and basically they're squandering it. Any organization needs to decide how it wants to hold itself accountable. But to me there's a question of what are the expectations amongst Democrats in terms of governing? What's the social contract?

[. . .] Democrats have failed to create a normative set of behaviors. They rely on rules when they should really act like a party. The fact that they have to change the rules because they cant act collectively is sad. Everyone gets to be the general when they feel their will or their issue or their point of view trumps everyone else's.

Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, everybody held up their vote for the purpose of gaining personal leverage. Now, appropriately, Harry Reid has to say this is the nature of legislation. But I never thought the nature was making compromises on rules rather than substance. This was 'I'll use the rule of 60 to gain substantive advantage.' The idea was not that democrats get 60 so everyone can be king or queen for a day. Everyone has been empowered. Why shouldn't Kent Conrad say that he won't raise the debt ceiling unless he gets his commission? It's the culture we've created. When we reward inappropriate behavior, we breed more inappropriate behavior.

Indeed, this is more of a Democratic Party problem than a Senate problem.

Speaking for me only

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    I am interested in what can be (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by Militarytracy on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 09:09:04 AM EST
    done to get legislation through that really needs to get through as we have a lot of crisis on the table.  It is hard for me to believe though that what has gone down needs to be chalked up to an undisciplined caucus.  I think that blue dogs may have even been encouraged behind the scenes in order to ensure that the President signs decidedly centrist legislation.

    Are you suggesting the Pres. (none / 0) (#6)
    by oculus on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 09:43:24 AM EST
    or his WH people did this?  

    Obama is a centrist (5.00 / 3) (#8)
    by Militarytracy on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 10:01:18 AM EST
    And he has very strong ties the Hamilton Project and to corporate America.  We already know that Obama did not want a public option in healthcare reform, so yes....in that respect I'm saying that certain blue dogs and their concerns were very very entertained while Howard Dean was attacked.  And if the Dems lose majorities next year, that isn't going to concern this President very much.  His economic team says that we need to cut Soc Sec in order to help heal what all of them did to us.  This President doesn't care if he has large Democratic majorities, he could almost in fact seem eager to lose them considering who he attacks and who he defends.

    Who did Obama endorse? (5.00 / 2) (#10)
    by Militarytracy on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 10:15:30 AM EST
    Lieberman or Lamont?  There were a million signs, that nobody wanted to see :)

    How many other times have we all (5.00 / 2) (#13)
    by Militarytracy on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 10:27:22 AM EST
    been SHOCKED, SHOCKED I tell you, by him?  There was FISA....god I know there's been much more, I just wasn't adding them all up in head at the time because I was so ever hopeful.  This last one though, the Afghanistan escalation, that did not shock me at all because I was seeing what was going on around me.  I began to get concerned when we sent so many contractors over and then the left blog rumor mills were spewing out that we weren't going.  I began to worry about unprotected poor with arms people over there.  There was no need to worry though.  That plan had long been in the hopper and the leftosphere only wanted to see what it wanted to see.  And By God you guys were shocked AND PI$$ED.  Lordy you guys were PI$$ED :)

    In fairness on that one (none / 0) (#16)
    by Socraticsilence on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 02:15:07 PM EST
    didn't pretty much every elected Dem side with Lamont post-primary (but not with major effort) and Lieberman pre-primary?

    And did all the other Dems campaign -- (none / 0) (#17)
    by lambert on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 03:08:30 PM EST
    -- sorry, market themselves -- on "Hope and Change"?

    Didn't think so.


    Gee (none / 0) (#21)
    by Socraticsilence on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 07:42:46 PM EST
    Lambert I thought you just wanted Obama to live up to the standards of previous Democratic Presidents I didn't know you actually believed he was a transcendent figure.

    Nice one (none / 0) (#22)
    by lambert on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 08:34:52 PM EST
    I never believed it, no.

    It's Obama that made the claim. That's the issue, despite your clumsy attempt at evasion.


    The filibuster will not die on the (5.00 / 5) (#7)
    by Anne on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 09:47:25 AM EST
    Democrats' watch - they need to be able to blame it for why they can't get anything done; yes, it is about as pathetic as "the dog ate my homework," or "Waaaah! They're being mean!" but it is what it is.

    As we gear up for mid-terms, I can hardly wait to hear why we need to keep electing them; if "the worst Democrat is better than any Republican" is going to be their rallying cry, God help them.

    And us.

    When you have a Democratic (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by jen on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 10:05:23 AM EST
    Party that has been infiltrated for years with Repubs, there is no chance of party unity. I think Karl Rove knew more than he could say when he spoke of a permanent Republican majority. In the end, it is still a Democratic Party problem, but I don't think any leader would be able to "sway" a DINO to get on board.

    A dilemma (none / 0) (#19)
    by christinep on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 04:11:49 PM EST
    Do we want a "purity test?"  If the outer limits for those on the right in the Republican Party and those on the left in the Democratic Party keep trying to censor their middling or other amorphous members, does that lead to a backdoor purity test? For me, the purity test can get real messy and counterproductive in a flash.  Yet...there is a lot to be said for party discipline. What are the consequences for maverick voting behavior in the Senate? When individual Senators are rewarded for only protecting their bailiwick, what can we expect? I wonder if in a system of rewards and punishments--since recent history suggests "punishments" might not work too well--there is a way to build in "rewards for good behavior." (Oh, and who cares if it looks like bribes, etc. Just stress classic behavior modification.)

    This is political tail-chasing ... (5.00 / 3) (#11)
    by Robot Porter on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 10:22:34 AM EST
    of the most obvious sort.

    If you have 60 votes and you're stilling having problems getting stuff passed, the problem isn't procedural.

    And arguing against the filibuster reinforces one of the worst ideas about Democrats, i.e. when we can't win fair and square we try to change the rules.

    In politics, you avoid like the plague things that reinforce your negatives.

    With health care essentially behind us, Dems need to focus on jobs, jobs, jobs and jobs.  And blogs should do the same. No energy should be wasted on changing the filibuster rules.

    Which will change first: (1) filibuster (5.00 / 4) (#12)
    by oculus on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 10:26:21 AM EST
    rule or (2) presidential primary caucus rules?

    Considering what Stern did to us on health care... (5.00 / 1) (#18)
    by lambert on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 03:11:35 PM EST
    ... what with funding HCAN't, and so on, I'm a little dubious of the provenance of the idea, and all the excitement about the filibuster among the access bloggers.

    Also, after the health care debacle, it's not clear why we'd want the Dems to be empowered. "Entitlement reform" would be a lot easier with 51. (And did I hear the words "Hamilton Project"?)

    Can't hurt to try (5.00 / 1) (#20)
    by Steve M on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 06:08:13 PM EST
    The original cloture rule required an affirmative vote from 2/3 of the Senate to cut off debate.  In the 50s it was weakened to require 2/3 of the Senators actually present, as opposed to 2/3 of the entire body.  In the 70s it was weakened again to the present 3/5 rule.  So I question the premise that Senators will never voluntarily give up their power, based on history.

    Another lesson from the 70s is that the 3/5 rule was a compromise between the old rules and certain Senators like Walter Mondale who wanted to get rid of the filibuster altogether.  Ol' Fritz knew something about bargaining.

    My answer (none / 0) (#1)
    by jbindc on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 08:15:49 AM EST
    1) In theory, yes.  2) In reality - never will happen, because it benefits both parties when in the minority (although it doesn't benefit the American people, but then again, who are we?)

    My answers: (none / 0) (#2)
    by andgarden on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 08:26:10 AM EST
    1. Yes (though I agree on a judicial nomination exception), 2. No.

    You might be interested to watch the 1995 debate on Harkin's proposal.

    But see (none / 0) (#3)
    by andgarden on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 08:45:39 AM EST
    [Jay Cost http://www.realclearpolitics.com/horseraceblog/2009/12/why_the_filibuster_is_more_ess.html for a defense of the filibuster].

    I don't agree with him, but he makes the best case. IMO, the protector of minority rights in our government should be (and often is) the Supreme Court, not the Senate.  


    It would be short sighted (none / 0) (#5)
    by richj25 on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 09:34:28 AM EST
    It was short sighted when the Republican tried to
    kill it off a few years ago and it would be short
    sighted if the Dems killed it off now.

    But isn't that a problem (none / 0) (#14)
    by Socraticsilence on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 02:09:27 PM EST
    with all parties- I mean the GOP has run for 3+ decades now on ending legal Abortion and most of them know deep down that's never going to happen.

    As to the question (none / 0) (#15)
    by Socraticsilence on Mon Dec 28, 2009 at 02:12:52 PM EST
    Yes, but as you stated in a highly restricted manner- I think Executive Appointments should be filibusterable, and frankly, the more I consider it the more legislative filibusters seem necessary-- what if the GOP had tried to push through Social Security reform instead of just posturing on it, or what if the Patriot act had actually been worse- wouldn't you have wanted a commited minority to be able to block it (admittedly, historically its generally used for horrendous crap- see Strom Thurmond in 1948).