Posted by: eseeders | February 17, 2009

To Filibuster Or Not… That Is The Question

This weekend as per my usual, I listened to the weekly broadcast of Poli-Sci-Fi Radio, a show that covers everything current in the world of politics and science fiction, perfect for a nerd such as myself. This week’s episode saw the inclusion of special guest Ezra Klein, Associate Editor and blogger for The American Prospect political magazine, with the political discussion centering around the recently passed stimulus bill. While we were most certainly in agreement for the need of a stimulus bill, there was disagreement over what to do with filibusters.

For those of you unaware, the filibuster is a senatorial procedure originally designed to slow the passage of a bill to allow more discussion. In recent decades however, the filibuster has become the weapon of choice for the minority party in order to sink bills they do not care for. One such example of this was evident in this months discussions over the recent stimulus bill, however, this time the Democrats had the votes to break the Republican roadblock. Now, there has been an understandable amount of frustration on the Democratic side of the isle over the incessant use of filibusters by the Republican party during the this as well as the last congress. Indeed, the Republicans of the Senate more than doubled the record for number of filibusters used during a session of Congress. The aforementioned Ezra Klein spoke eloquently against filibusters in a recent piece for The American Prospect.

This is, perhaps, the greatest irony of all. The filibuster is the right to unlimited debate. It has instead become the refuge of those who could not win the last electoral argument, but seek to win the next one. The prime use of the filibuster now is to keep the majority party from governing successfully. It is the reason the stimulus is less likely to work and comprehensive health-care reform is unlikely to happen and climate change is unlikely to be averted.

The filibuster does, as The New York Times said, “fend off actions supported by a bare majority of the Senate, but deeply offensive to the minority.” But those “actions” amount to successful governance. What offends the minority is losing more seats. Generations before us have recognized this, and so long as the filibuster has been in existence, so too have wise politicians tried to constrain its capacity for mischief. But the experience of recent years suggests that the filibuster can no longer be contained. Foiling the majority is too tempting, it makes too much electoral sense. And so it may be time to finish the job that Henry Clay started. It may be time to abolish the filibuster.

Unfortunately, to my mind this argument is unpersuasive. While I concede, it would be nice to be able to pass legislation with a mere majority vote, that alone does not outweigh the possible consequences. I would argue that the filibuster must remain in place as the Democrats will not maintain power forever and thus there may come a time when such a tactic is required to halt Republican legislation. Ezra has countered this by stating that constituents will hold their representatives to greater account when said representatives are actually able to fully enact their legislative proposals. Fair enough, but lets dig into this counter argument a little deeper.

Firstly, this counter argument presupposes an engaged populous. Let’s be honest though, few Americans follow the day to day goings on in D.C.. Even if there was a marginal boost in those that kept themselves well informed on domestic politics, that group would still be greatly overshadowed by the general populous. The problem here lies with the fact that the general populous has a tendency to be easily swayed. They follow the headlines and if said headlines are all about the blue dress and not how well or poorly the party in power is governing what would you expect the result to be? I don’t think the accountability aspect would be there unless a terribly large catastrophe strikes or a very charismatic figure arises to draw attention to all the broken bits a la Barack Obama.

Secondly, there is the issue of passing and reversing legislation. Without a filibuster, this becomes significantly easier for either party to accomplish when in power. Extrapolating this out a bit and examining some hypotheticals I see some very difficult issues arising. So in 2020 Republicans regain the White House and Congress due to some ineptitude on some kind or other on the the Democratic side. While in power, Republicans manage to entirely privatize Social Security, get rid of Medicare (hypothetically speaking remember) and open up all the national parks to big oil companies in the first year. Right, so the people really don’t like this and decide that they will indeed hold the Republicans accountable and oust them from office 4 years later. It’s an easy job to fix what the Republicans did without filibusters in place right? Wrong. Easy it may be to change the laws… but to actually reverse course would be difficult as hell. Rebuilding Social Security and Medicare is more than just turning on the money spigot, you have to establish the bureaucracies that run them and that could well take years. Then you have to look at the possible irreversible environmental damage that could be caused by those companies being permitted to drill for oil. That alone should give one pause when considering removing filibusters.

Yes it is a major pain in the ass to get past filibusters. Despite that, it remains a necessary evil at least until we are able to find a second reasonable party to oppose the Democrats. Perhaps if the Republican party weren’t so hell bent on being insane (e.g. not one House Republican voted for the stimulus bill and only three Senate Republicans did so) removing the filibuster might be a more palatable idea. Until than though, I have to support keeping the filibuster in place (Ezra is still a really smart guy though!).



  1. Thanks for listening to the show and posting about it! The mp3 of the show will be up tonight.

    I think your arguments are important to consider before taking action, but the point that really hit home to me from Ezra’s comments was that the government is broken. Every bill in the senate now requires two votes: a 60 senator majority to break filibuster and a simple majority to pass the bill. It’s not a functioning democracy if nothing can get done at all — good or bad. So we’re looking at a governing body that is simply not equipped to deal with major issues like climate change and healthcare reform. The system prevents the senate from accomplishing anything, even when a clear majority of senators favors action in a particular direction.

    So we must ask ourselves: do we want to live in a functioning democracy (albeit one with a mostly uninformed electorate and with an “insane” opposition party), or do we want to continue to live in a country that doesn’t work? I’ll take the actual functioning (though imperfect) democracy. Your mileage may vary.

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