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The President on the Filibuster

There are plenty of things to nitpick and break down in the President’s meetings with the progressive left yesterday, but I will give him some credit for bringing up the governance crisis in our Senate. He did endorse reforming the filibuster, not once but twice, and in one case unprompted. This was the beginning of the answer to an open-ended question by Jon Stewart on what has to change:

“There are a couple of things that have changed in our politics that are gonna have to be fixed. One is the way the filibuster operates. As I said, that’s just not in the Constitution.”

The Stewart taping seemed informed by the progressive blogger meeting, because here’s what the President said over there:

I will say that as just an observer of our political process that if we do not fix how the filibuster is used in the Senate, then it is going to be very difficult for us over the long term to compete in a very fast moving global environment.

What keeps me up at night is China, Germany, India, Brazil — they’re moving. They make decisions, we’re going to pursue clean energy, and the next thing you know they’ve cornered half the clean energy market; we’re going to develop high-speed rail in the span of five years — suddenly they’ve got high-speed rail lines going; we’re going to promote exports, here’s what we’re going to do — boom, they get going.

And if we can’t sort of execute on key issues that will determine our competitiveness over the long term, we’re going to fall behind — we are going to fall behind.

And the filibuster is not part of the Constitution. The filibuster, if you look at the history of it, may have arisen purely by accident because somebody didn’t properly apply Robert’s Rules of Procedure and forgot to get a provision in there about what was required to close debate. And folks figured out very early, this could be a powerful tool. It was used as a limited tool throughout its history. Sadly, the primary way it was used was to prevent African Americans from achieving civil rights.

I think it’s a bit late to come into this argument, but it’s an important one to have. We cannot rely on the comity of the other side to use the filibuster judiciously.

The President said that progressives should look at changes to the filibuster “with their eyes open” because it would mean the other side would have the opportunity to get their agenda through. In fact, that could be the case within a week. Well, my eyes are wide open. You’d actually have accountability in that case. You’d have an agenda deliberately put together by the party in power, and the public can make a judgment on that, not on the idea that they should have “pushed harder” or that we need a supermajority for everything. Majority rule works perfectly well in most countries across the globe.

At one point in the meeting, the President says that “you weren’t in the meetings” if you think that Ben Nelson, Arlen Specter and Susan Collins would have voted for a bigger stimulus package. The point is it shouldn’t have been up to them, frankly. And if you want to compete globally, you can’t have such a phlegmatic system of government.

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David Dayen

David Dayen