Both Sides, Eh?

05.11.12

Still Evil: The Filibuster

Let’s broach the filibuster topic. Politico reports today that Harry Reid now supports aggressive filibuster reform, which isn’t going to happen, but we’ll get to that later. He’d opposed it recently, when two freshman Democratic senators tried to push for reform, but now he’s come around.

First point: The filibuster is killing the Senate. It’s a body that can’t do much of anything because 60 votes are needed to pass any measure more controversial than designating March National Pickle Month (I just made that up, but my conscience wouldn't permit me to mislead you on such a matter so I decided to Google it; it’s actually July, which is also National Hot Dog Month, National Baked Bean Month, and, perhaps incongruously, National Culinary Arts Month). The Senate has become a joke.

Second point: No, no, a thousand times no, it was not supposed to be this way. Yes—the Senate was supposed to slow things down (the famous old saucer and tea quote from G. Washington). But no, it was never supposed to make serious action well nigh impossible. And it was certainly never supposed to devolve into a situation, which we have now, in which the minority is effectively the majority, because 41 senators can prevent action.

Conservative readers should consider this quote: “To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision) is…to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser number.” This person added that such a provision would “destroy the energy of government,” handing outsized power to “an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junto.” This was A. Hamilton, one of your heroes, as quoted by your correspondent in The New York Review in 2010.

The filibuster is not in the Constitution. It’s not “time-honored.” It was used exceedingly rarely until the 1970s. It’s a symptom of the dysfunction that began to infest the chamber when we entered the age of teevee and big money and politics as constant warfare.

Third point: Yes, I am well aware that the Republicans will control the Senate again one day. Even knowing that, I say, change the rules. If they made me emperor, I’d propose something very simple: Just lower the cloture threshold to 55. That way, the Senate still slows things down, but not to the point of incapacitation. This would not eliminate the problem Hamilton described, but it would at least lessen it. If either party captures the presidency and a 55-seat majority, they've won big, and they deserve to enact their program.

Fourth point: Please, please, please, Manu Raju, don’t dash off sentences like: “Itakes 60 votes — and time-consuming cloture motions — to overcome a filibuster, a tool that has been employed with growing frequency by both parties over the years.” Yes, that’s true as far as it goes, but it’s so general as to be meaningless—and misleading.

The nearest way we have to measure this is by “cloture motions filed”—that is, procedural motions filed by (usually) the majority leader when the minority threatens to filibuster something. Let’s look at the number of such motions in the last decade’s worth of senates, noting which party was in the minority and was therefore the party threatening filibusters:

107th Congress, 2001-2003, Democrats in minority: 71 cloture motions filed

108th Congress, 2003-2005, Dem minority: 62

109th Congress, 2005-2007, Dem minority: 68

110th Congress, 2007-2009, Republican minority: 139

111th Congress, 2009-2011, Rep minority: 137

112th Congress, 2011-2013, Rep minority: 87 (so far)

This suggests that Republicans threaten about twice as many filibusters as Democrats do. The number is down for the current Congress, in part because Democrats have just thrown up their hands (and remember, this Congress isn’t over yet). So no, Democrats aren’t blameless. But the blame for the dysfunction is a long way from equal. I appreciate the pressures faced by reporters on deadline, but Googling these numbers took me about four minutes.

Reform won't happen anytime soon: Two-thirds of senators would have to agree to lower the threshold number. That's obviously not in the cards. But it's a big, big, big issue. If Obama is reelected, I hope he works on it.