Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Little More Congressional History

Following up on this post...

Ezra Klein is fillibusteriffic this weekend, with a well-argued column in the Sunday Post, and three excellent interviews, including this one with political scientist and Congressional scholar Barbara Sinclair.

As I've mentioned, I'm strongly against pure majoritarian democracy, but ambivalent about the filibuster; it's not clear to me that this particular anti-majoritarian institution is a good one, and I don't much like the absolute 60 vote Senate.  But, that aside, this post is focused just on the history of why 1993 is the key date in filibuster history.  Matt Yglasias asks:
Something that I don’t really understand about the filibuster is how it is that the perception is so widespread that constant filibustering is a longstanding tradition. I used to think that was the case, but that’s because filibustermania has existed throughout the entirety of my relatively brief political consciousness. But surely lots of people remember the Carter and Reagan administrations?

The reason?  Because between (at least) 1933 and 1993, the filibuster was rarely a relevant option; it was either unavailable or irrelevant.

Our story begins with FDR, mainly because...well, because my knowledge goes back that far.  FDR started out with huge Congressional majorities and a broad sense within Washington of a policy emergency that suspended normal rules: in his first term, he was able to get things through Congress easily (although even then he was open to compromise, but that's a different topic).   Major legislation was passing with huge majorities, so the filibuster was unavailable to opponents.

In the next period, 1939-1952, Democratic Presidents were faced with smaller Congressional majorities.  But the filibuster wasn't necessary, because conservatives in Congress had a much better weapon: the committee system.  Largely autonomous committees, with a strict seniority system producing a lot of Southern Democrats as committee chairs (since they were all in safe seats as part of the solid south), were able to bottle up liberal legislation favored by Roosevelt and Truman.  No need for a filibuster; bills never reached the floor.  The biggest bottleneck, in fact, was in the House, where the conservative-dominated Rules Committee could, and often did, kill any bill.

Then we get to Ike's presidency.  After two years of Republican control, the 1954 elections produce divided government (there was also one Republican Congress during the Truman years).  With divided government, the filibuster is largely irrelevant, since the minority party in the Senate through the veto (or, if Congress is divided, in the House)  So the filibuster becomes irrelevant. 

Kennedy's presidency is much like the 1939-1952 period: the House, not the Senate, is the body that resists majority rule. 

Of course, Johnson then wins a huge landslide in 1964, and the subsequent Congress is easily able to overcome any potential filibusters.  The filibuster becomes somewhat more available after the 1966 election, and guess what?  That Congress does feature a famous (and successful) filibuster, against the confirmation of Abe Fortas for Chief Justice.

We skip ahead to 1969: eight years of divided government renders the filibuster mostly irrelevant.

It would make a lot of sense for the 60 vote Senate to emerge during the Carter years. As it turned out, Carter's legislative program was so inept that Republicans hardly needed that weapon, although filibusters are increasing during that period.

And then, another twelve years of divided government.  During Reagan's first Congress, a filibuster might have made some sense, but first of all, the Democrats were largely in disarray, and second of all Reagan used reconciliation for (if I recall correctly) both his tax cut and budget cutting bills, which were his main legislative goals.  After 1982, liberals regain full control of the House, and can stop any of Reagan's initiatives there, and from 1987 through 1992 Democrats held both Houses of Congress.

Which brings us to 1993, Bill Clinton, and the 60 vote Senate.  1993 is the first time in over sixty years that combined (1) a president with an ambitious legislative agenda; (2) unified government; (3) without huge majorities; and (4) a majoritarian, party-run House of Representatives.  Without those conditions, a filibuster strategy just doesn't make sense; with those conditions, it becomes at least plausible.  So when Republicans declared their intention to filibuster everything, there really wasn't a comparable historical period, at least not in all of the relevant ways, within the living political memory of Washingtonians.

Now, it also requires a minority party that does not believe it will pay a political price for blocking actions supported by the majority party.  That applied in 1993, partially because of the circumstances of Clinton's sub-50% victory.  The Republican landslide convinced all Republicans that the rejectionist strategy, featuring the 60 vote Senate, was the obvious political choice for a minority party.  It also requires a minority party uninterested in the policy rewards of collaboration, which certainly seems to fit the current Republicans. 

And so: the 60 vote Senate.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?