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Historic Obstructionism and Filibuster Use Finally Being Discussed

(source: Wikipedia)

(source: Wikipedia)

David Waldman has a thorough rundown of the series of six votes (1 down, 5 to go) necessary to pass health care reform in the Senate, along with the other procedural maneuvers. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s one of his conclusions:

If nothing else, this week will be a useful demonstration of just what a giant pain in the ass filibusters and cloture voting can be, which will tell you a little something about why Senators are often willing to meet almost any demand to avoid dealing with threats of sustained delaying campaigns. When a “hold” gets put on a bill — particularly a complex one like this — you begin to see why Senators sometimes prefer just to honor the hold and let the bill lie, rather than fight their way through it. Especially when there’s a full legislative agenda stacking up behind.

Lest anyone think that this kind of clock management is unique to the health care bill, Republicans actually routinely call for this kind of time-eating procedure to break their filibusters. Not only is there a routine 60-vote supermajority threshold for getting business done in the Senate, but there is a long stretch of time that must be devoted to breaking that filibuster even if you have the votes. And this stacks up the business of the Senate.

It’s a recipe for total dysfunction, as Jeff Merkley described it. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse points out just how new this is in an interview with the New York Times:

At the same time, Democrats say the apparently unbridgeable health care divide has convinced them that Republicans are dedicated solely to blocking legislative proposals for political purposes. Several said they now realized that they would have to rely strictly on their own caucus to advance such defining issues as climate change in 2010.

“We have crossed the mark of over 100 filibusters and acts of procedural obstruction in less than one year,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, said on the floor Sunday. “Never since the founding of the Republic, not even in the bitter sentiments preceding Civil War, was such a thing ever seen in this body.”

The filibuster is finally getting a reputation as the progenitor of Senate dysfunction, in a way we hadn’t seen before. Republicans in the minority have used the filibuster more and more since 2007, but this year, with a Democrat in the White House and no backstop of a Presidential veto, the number has just skyrocketed. James Fallows seconds Whitehouse on the unique nature of Republican obstruction, and how this brand-new approach to blocking governing is taking its toll on the nation.

The significant thing about filibusters through most of U.S. history is that they hardly ever happened. But since roughly the early Clinton years, the threat of filibuster has gone from exception to routine, for legislation and appointments alike, with the result that doing practically anything takes not 51 but 60 votes. So taken for granted is the change that the nation’s leading paper can off-handedly say that 60 votes are “needed to pass their bill.” In practice that’s correct, but the aberrational nature of this change should not be overlooked […]

An authoritative academic treatment came from David Mayhew, of Yale, in his 2002 James Madison lecture for the American Political Science Association. It is available here in PDF and very much worth reading. Sample passage:

“That topic is supermajority rule in the U.S. Senate– that is, the need to win more than a simple majority of senators to pass laws. Great checker and balancer though Madison was, this feature of American institutional life would probably have surprised him and might have distressed him….

“Automatic failure for bills not reaching the 60 mark. That is the current Senate practice, and in my view it has aroused surprisingly little interest or concern among the public or even in political science. It is treated as matter- of-fact. One might ask: What ever happened to the value of majority rule?”

Everything I have mentioned here is familiar, including the fact that this newly-invented “check” was not part of the original check-and-balance constitutional design. But somehow it isn’t familiar, in the sense of being part of general understanding and mainstream coverage of issues like the health reform bill. Talk shows analyze exactly how the Administration can get to 60 votes; they don’t discuss where the 60-vote practice came from and what it has done to public life. I have a gigantic article coming out soon in the Atlantic — long even by our standards! but interesting! — which concerns America’s ability to address big public problems, compared in particular with China’s. The increasing dysfunction of public institutions, notably the Senate, is a big part of this story.

The filibuster has been an undercurrent of political junkie complaints and academic papers, but that has migrated to The Atlantic and the op-ed page of the New York Times, where Paul Krugman takes it on today. Democrats have tried and failed to get the media interested in the narrative of obstructionism from the GOP. But now, it’s impossible to ignore.

This is not only dangerous for implementing an agenda mandated by voters in an election year, it’s dangerous for democracy as a whole. A government that is almost choked off from responding to its challenges fails its people.

Before action is taken, the public must hear about the nature of the problem. And that’s what’s happening currently.

CommunityThe Bullpen

Historic Obstructionism And Filibuster Use Finally Being Discussed

Gumming Up the Works

David Waldman has a thorough rundown of the series of six votes (1 down, 5 to go) necessary to pass health care reform in the Senate, along with the other procedural maneuvers. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s one of his conclusions:

If nothing else, this week will be a useful demonstration of just what a giant pain in the ass filibusters and cloture voting can be, which will tell you a little something about why Senators are often willing to meet almost any demand to avoid dealing with threats of sustained delaying campaigns. When a “hold” gets put on a bill — particularly a complex one like this — you begin to see why Senators sometimes prefer just to honor the hold and let the bill lie, rather than fight their way through it. Especially when there’s a full legislative agenda stacking up behind.

Lest anyone think that this kind of clock management is unique to the health care bill, Republicans actually routinely call for this kind of time-eating procedure to break their filibusters. Not only is there a routine 60-vote supermajority threshold for getting business done in the Senate, but there is a long stretch of time that must be devoted to breaking that filibuster even if you have the votes. And this stacks up the business of the Senate.

It’s a recipe for total dysfunction, as Jeff Merkley described it. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse points out just how new this is in an interview with the New York Times:

At the same time, Democrats say the apparently unbridgeable health care divide has convinced them that Republicans are dedicated solely to blocking legislative proposals for political purposes. Several said they now realized that they would have to rely strictly on their own caucus to advance such defining issues as climate change in 2010.

“We have crossed the mark of over 100 filibusters and acts of procedural obstruction in less than one year,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, said on the floor Sunday. “Never since the founding of the Republic, not even in the bitter sentiments preceding Civil War, was such a thing ever seen in this body.”

The filibuster is finally getting a reputation as the progenitor of Senate dysfunction, in a way we hadn’t seen before. Republicans in the minority have used the filibuster more and more since 2007, but this year, with a Democrat in the White House and no backstop of a Presidential veto, the number has just skyrocketed. James Fallows seconds Whitehouse on the unique nature of Republican obstruction, and how this brand-new approach to blocking governing is taking its toll on the nation.

The significant thing about filibusters through most of U.S. history is that they hardly ever happened. But since roughly the early Clinton years, the threat of filibuster has gone from exception to routine, for legislation and appointments alike, with the result that doing practically anything takes not 51 but 60 votes. So taken for granted is the change that the nation’s leading paper can off-handedly say that 60 votes are “needed to pass their bill.” In practice that’s correct, but the aberrational nature of this change should not be overlooked […]

An authoritative academic treatment came from David Mayhew, of Yale, in his 2002 James Madison lecture for the American Political Science Association. It is available here in PDF and very much worth reading. Sample passage:

“That topic is supermajority rule in the U.S. Senate– that is, the need to win more than a simple majority of senators to pass laws. Great checker and balancer though Madison was, this feature of American institutional life would probably have surprised him and might have distressed him….

“Automatic failure for bills not reaching the 60 mark. That is the current Senate practice, and in my view it has aroused surprisingly little interest or concern among the public or even in political science. It is treated as matter- of-fact. One might ask: What ever happened to the value of majority rule?”

Everything I have mentioned here is familiar, including the fact that this newly-invented “check” was not part of the original check-and-balance constitutional design. But somehow it isn’t familiar, in the sense of being part of general understanding and mainstream coverage of issues like the health reform bill. Talk shows analyze exactly how the Administration can get to 60 votes; they don’t discuss where the 60-vote practice came from and what it has done to public life. I have a gigantic article coming out soon in the Atlantic — long even by our standards! but interesting! — which concerns America’s ability to address big public problems, compared in particular with China’s. The increasing dysfunction of public institutions, notably the Senate, is a big part of this story.

The filibuster has been an undercurrent of political junkie complaints and academic papers, but that has migrated to The Atlantic and the op-ed page of the New York Times, where Paul Krugman takes it on today. Democrats have tried and failed to get the media interested in the narrative of obstructionism from the GOP. But now, it’s impossible to ignore.

This is not only dangerous for implementing an agenda mandated by voters in an election year, it’s dangerous for democracy as a whole. A government that is almost choked off from responding to its challenges fails its people.

Before action is taken, the public must hear about the nature of the problem. And that’s what’s happening currently.

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David Dayen

David Dayen