Don't fear the filibuster

(Cross-posted from Think it Through)

Why is it that Senators, lobbyists, and the news media who cover Congress take as an article of faith that Democrats need 60 votes to pass their legislation in the Senate and the Republicans only need a simple majority?

The press has been reporting the need for 60-vote majorities as if it has always been a given -- because 60 votes are needed to close down debate if the minority objecting decides to filibuster.Under Majority Leader Harry Reid, the idea of upsetting the Senate by daring the Republicans to actually carry through on their threats to filibuster is out of the question.When I asked a 30- year veteran Senate staff person this week how this phenomenon has come about, he said, "comity in the Senate is valued more than taking a stand for something."

The Democratic leadership anticipates the Republicans will filibuster everything, so we read in the press that "under an agreement in the Senate, the bill needs 60 votes to pass." But when the Republicans ran the Senate (many days it seems they still do), they passed something as important as Samuel Alito's Supreme Court nomination with just 58 votes. No Democrat filibustered the nomination, and Alito took his long record of siding with large institutions against individual rights with him to the Supreme Court bench for the next 30 years.

Convinced by their pollsters and consultants that Americans do not want controversy, Democratic Senators cowered whenever then-Senate Majority leader Bill Frist called them obstructionists. This misreads the American people. We have found in our research that voters can discern between taking a stand on a controversial issue and bickering like school children.

For example, Americans view the filibuster as an appropriate tool for senators to use to make a point. In focus groups we conducted a few years ago we heard strong support for filibusters as a "check on the majority view," part of our system of "checks and balances," and a way to hear a diversity of views. If you lose public support after staging a filibuster, it will be because voters disagree with your position on the issue, not because you tied up the Senate business.

This Senate under the leadership of Harry Reid has seen no real filibusters, but has been limited by more 60-vote agreements than any in the history of the Senate. Somecommentators have looked at this sorry situation and concluded the remedy is to eliminate the filibuster altogether, so there would be no need for cloture votes. I disagree. I think the voters in our focus groups had it right -- the filibuster is a check on some extreme action that may be proposed by the majority party. It is not intended to be invoked on every vote -- and if Reid challenged the Republicans to go ahead and filibuster, it would not be used that way.

The Democratic leadership in the Senate should force the Republicans to stand and defend their opposition to Democratic initiatives -- dare the Republicans to filibuster.  On issue after issue -- on aid to cities and states, on taxes, on health care, on education and transportation funding -- if the Republicans want to dramatically demonstrate their differences with Democrats by way of the filibuster, the Democrats should let them. This would require the Democrats having the ability to defend their own positions. Right now, neither side needs to engage too much - they simply "have an agreement that it will require 60 votes to stop debate and pass the legislation."

Amplifying attention to issue differences between Democrats and Republicans would mean that the winners and losers would be more clearly defined. When Senator Strom Thurmond staged a filibuster to block civil rights legislation in the 1957 he heightened the attention of the nation on the issue of racial equality.Ultimately, his position failed.

As soon as the Democrats learn not to fear the filibuster, there will be fewer threats to filibuster, and the Senate will get back to majority rule.

Update: edited for clarity

John Russonello is a partner with Belden Russonello & Stewart:Public Opinion Research and Strategic Communications in Washington, DC. He writes the blog "Think it Through."

Tags: Filibuster, Focus Groups, Harry Reid, Samuel Alito, strom thurmond (all tags)



Harry Reid?

The Harry Reid that stood up for Ted Stevens, saying he shouldn't get jail time, and how great he had been for Alaska?

That Harry Reid?

Yeah, I expect him to turn in Teddy Roosevelt any day now....

by WashStateBlue 2009-02-23 04:50AM | 0 recs
The Constiutional Option

is the way to go, if the budget reconciliation process won't work.

by Geekesque 2009-02-23 05:04AM | 0 recs
Re: Don't fear the filibuster


Let the GOP knuckle-draggers rant on about why healthcare for all is bad, why the unemployed shouldn't get more insurance, why to privatize Social Security, etc.

I'm waiting!!

by borlov 2009-02-23 12:08PM | 0 recs
You're mistaken about Alito

He was filibustered, but the filibuster was broken 72-25; ll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?con gress=109&session=2&vote=00001

by DTOzone 2009-02-23 12:24PM | 0 recs
for the stimulus - it was not about the GOP

The 60 votes was needed for the stimulus because they circumvented procedures and had really nothing to do with the Republicans other than they thought the bill should be debated like any other law and not railroaded through.

by Classical Liberal 2009-02-23 02:33PM | 0 recs
Re: for the stimulus - it was not about the GOP

No they didn't want a debate they wanted it changed to suit their agenda - an agenda that hasn't worked for the past 8 years. Remind me again why you post on a Democratic blog?

by jrsygrl 2009-02-23 03:50PM | 0 recs
Re: for the stimulus - it was not about the GOP

Why don't you tell me what their agenda was then.  I think you are only repeating rhetoric which is truly without logic.

If life was only about getting one political party in power I would shoot my self.  I am here to help you refine your arguments and think through your positions.  Life in an echo chamber only serves to make Washington stronger.

I think the Republicans are lost they can only fight for limited government when they are not in power.  My vote is not paid for which allows me to think above the fray.  The rest of the country is beginning to understand this too.  If we want to keep the government of the people, by the people and for the people we have to step up and drive the ship, not just step in line.

by Classical Liberal 2009-02-23 04:22PM | 0 recs
Re: for the stimulus - it was not about the GOP

No I'm not repeating rhetoric - I'm stating common sense.  My vote isn't bought and you are not "above the fray."  You seem awfully sympathetic to the plight of the GOP - the very party that has steamrolled us for the past 8 years - that's not rhetoric that is fact. Who else brought us here?

by jrsygrl 2009-02-25 07:21AM | 0 recs
Re: for the stimulus - it was not about the GOP

Like I said the GOP seems to only fight for my cause when they are not in power.  When they got in power they turned in used the power of the government to get their agenda(which was not about empowering the individual and protecting freedom at home.)

You use general rhetoric like steamrolled us for 8 years with out ever talking generally about how they "screwed" the country(where is the fact?).  This BS that the GOP pushed the free market during Bush really is not common sense.  Government is so involved with our markets you can not deny they had a roll and you blame Bush and the GOP(which logically would mean you think government had a hand in the problem).  Why do you want politics controlling the market?  Or do you just want one party rule from here to eternity?

Sounds like a great future.  

by Classical Liberal 2009-02-25 08:53AM | 0 recs
Re: for the stimulus - it was not about the GOP

The GOP is fighting the same cause - their positions have not changed. That is the major problem with your argument - you are acting like they are now fighting for a different agenda when, in fact, their positions have remained very consistent.  

There is nothing wrong with a free market - that is not what they are fighting for at all.
And where is the fact that they screwed the country - hello  the economy has been in the toilet for the past several years, when it was flourishing under Clinton.  Seriously, why are you posting here with your GOP talking points?

by jrsygrl 2009-02-25 12:22PM | 0 recs
Re: for the stimulus - it was not about the GOP

Okay you are right and are the resident expert in what the GOP is fighting for.  Your assumption that free market ideals is what Bush fought for may be right, but then Bush lost because he grew government, grew regulation, centralized power and limited freedoms.  

No where am I defending the GOP.  They are the much like the Democrats only fighting for freedom when they are the opposition party.

You obviously you can only stick to the rhetoric.  I am not looking for a fight.  A discussion issues would be more inline with what I am looking for.

If our markets operated more freely, then who was president would be much less important wouldn't it.


by Classical Liberal 2009-02-25 12:32PM | 0 recs
Re: for the stimulus - it was not about the GOP

WTF - why are you on a democratic blog? I don't have to be a resident GOP expert to make what are very obvious observations. You are either deliberately trying to stir the pot or a complete idiot.  Democrats did a piss poor job during Term 2 in Congress of standing in the way of the GOP agenda. Now they are caving even though they are in the majority, instead of learning from the GOP how to get their agenda, which is finally a different agenda, from the past 8 years put through to try and fix this mess.  

by jrsygrl 2009-02-27 02:22PM | 0 recs
Re: Don't fear the filibuster

The extremists are McConnell and the Republicans.

We need a check against them, the minority party who will use the filibuster to kill labor reform and various civil rights legislation of today.

You really don't make an argument for the filibuster except to point out that it has been used as a check, forgetting to point out that the extremists are the Republicans.

It's ant-Demcoratic, and just as we ditched state legs electing US senators, we should call on our senators to ditch this relic.

by MAL Contends 2009-02-24 03:19AM | 0 recs
The Sword of Damocles swings both ways

I get the feeling that we'd regret it in time if we removed the filibuster rule, just as the Republicans would have regretted it in 2006 if they'd deployed the "nuclear option" in the years prior to the end of the "Permanent Republican Majority."

by Dracomicron 2009-02-24 04:58AM | 0 recs
Don't play unfair, just don't play nice anymore

If Reid is smart, he'll stop using the 60 vote agreements as soon as it becomes politically feasable... i.e. just when the Republicans think they're going to kill solid, needed legislation.  Psych!

Prior to where we stand now, there was a reason to play nice with the Republicans: Bush could and would use his powers vindictively by vetoing just about every Democratic initiative he could and strongarming Congress by manipulating emergency sessions, abusing out-of-session appointments, and the like.  Even if we were to pass our legislation, Bush would subvert it with signing statements or by simply not implementing the new laws.  It was a plausable electoral strategy to allow our best attempts to be thwarted.

Now, however, there's no further need for that.  We can and should strive for as many votes as possible, but we can no longer afford to allow a petulant minority to obstruct the repair of the country without reprecussion.

by Dracomicron 2009-02-24 05:09AM | 0 recs
Re: Don't fear the filibuster

Let's deal with reality, not emotions.  I'm a Democrat, I wish the Senate Dems were tougher, I would be happy to see us sticking it to the Republicans. Please don't attack me for my politics, this post is not about what I wish the world were like, it is about what is.

The rules of the Senate require 60 votes to end debate (a few exceptions, like budget bills).  That doesn't mean Reid et al need to be very "bipartisan", but it does mean they need one or two or three Republicans to vote for 'cloture', to end debate (three if neither Franken nor Kennedy is there, one if all the Dems are present).  

Democrats when they were minority stopped a lot of what Bush and the Republicans wanted to do through filibuster as well (drilling in Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for example). It is also true that the Republicans use the threat to filibuster dramatically more than the Democrats did. Republicans are nastier.

Strom Thurmond's 1957 filibuster was, eventually beaten. A real Civil Rights Act, with teeth, was passed in 1965.  It was passed after a two month filibuster. We didn't have two months to wait for the Recovery Bill.

Current Senate practice is to not require an actual filibuster, instead to simply do a cloture vote to end debate (this being the Senate, a vote to end debate still allows debate to continue for several days!) If it doesn't achieve 60 votes, the issue loses and is either dropped or bargained down to get the necessary votes. Requiring an actual filibuster, "going to the matresses", with Senators sleeping the cloak rooms (to be ready for a quorum call) is exhausting and stops all other Senate business. The 1965 filibuster never affected the Southern Democrats: they were content to stop all Senate work if it meant stopping the Civil Rights Act. I think most Republicans feel similarly today.  In 1965, breaking the filibuster was never aimed at the Southerners, it was aimed at the moderates (Dirksen and a handful of others) who did not want to end debate but did want to accomplish other things. "Going to the mattresses" required them to choose, and eventually they ended the filibuster.
 There are not many moderates in the Senate today. Who would change their mind? Yes, the "American People" would be outraged, but most of the American people already vote Democratic. Would South Carolina voters be outraged at Lindsey Graham? I doubt it. More importantly, he doubts it so there would be no pressure on him to stop the filibuster. Most Republican Senators are in a similar position.

My point is simple. It is unfair, undemocratic, and outrageous that the Republicans are preventing necessary and important programs. But, the reality is, they are. Unfair, undemocratic, and outrageous. And the reality is, it is much easier and quicker to negotiate with a few, Specter, Collins, Snowe, and get their votes by giving them more money for NIH, or less money for education or family planning (see above: outrageous and unfair) than is is to try (and probably fail) to bludgeon them into submission with an actual filibuster. Less emotionally satisfying perhaps, but better politics.

Politics is the art of the possible.  The Recovery Act was much worse because the "moderates" moderated it. But an unpassed Recovery Act is no recovery at all.

One final, small, point.  The Senate can almost not function without "Unanimous Consent Agreement".  Thus having at least a minimum (that is a very small amount!) of respect and mutuality between Reid and McConnell is essential if the Democrats are to get anything done. It is in our interest to avoid the bitter feelings that would come from "going to the mattresses".  For example, the Reovery Act passed under a UCA that kept voting open for an extraordinarily long time, so that Leiberman could vote in the morning before Sabbath and Brown could vote at night after returning from the funeral.  Really, folks, we need Republican cooperation. Hard as it is to believe, they could be much worse than they are.

by markphd 2009-02-25 05:41PM | 0 recs


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