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Grim’s Fairy Tale

Ryan Grim has a piece up at Huffington Post that attempts to explain why the wise and wily Senate Democrats are helpless in the face of Republican filibuster threats.

The context of Grim’s post is supplied in part by a linked Politico article (their typical gossipy, largely unsubstantiated and Drudge-like fare) citing anonymous whispers about anger among Democratic Congress members. They’re pissed off , it is said, that just three Republican senators were able to take the House stimulus bill out into a Senate cloakroom and pistol-whip it into submission, under the threat of filibuster.

The Politico piece describes House Dems as hopeful that Harry might do something other than faint and slump to the floor every time the word “filibuster” was used or implied. Instead, the Dems suggest, Reid should call the GOP bluff and actually make them filibuster. The resulting spectacle of rampaging GOP politicians spouting authentic senatorial gibberish while throttling SCHIP (or some such bill with wide popular support) on the senate floor could be televised across the nation to great advantage. “Look!” (Harry could claim on Meet The Press) “they’re killing our kids!”
As the argument goes, the GOP could be shamed into being less obstructive, the record rate of filibuster-threats we’re currently ‘enjoying’ would drop significantly, and some work might actually get done.

Not going to happen, says Grim. His counter-argument is that filibusters aren’t actually the dramatic events portrayed in movies, but instead are fairly quiet and boring. In his scenario, one senator walks to the floor and says quietly “Mr. President, I suggest the absence of a quorum”—and then goes back and sits down. As proof, he offers the 1988 example of Republican Senator Alan Simpson successfully filibustering Robert Byrd’s attempt to pass campaign finance reform, using exactly this same quiet and boring tactic.

Grim has a point that filibusters need not be (and apparently usually aren’t) dramatic and exciting. But why can’t quiet and boring filibusters be used against the minority just as easily as loud, exciting ones? Grim seems to be missing the point. A minority filibuster doesn’t have to be loud and dramatic to be useful to the majority. All the majority needs are headlines similar to what Simpson’s filibuster produced in the New York Times (in the example Grim himself used).

It said:

Campaign Spending Bill Is Lifted After Vote Fails to End Filibuster

Media coverage like this, held in the hands of a very competent communicator like Obama, would be more than adequate to inform the public of what was being blocked, why, and by whom.

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