Wednesday, July 28, 2010

It Ain't All the Filibuster

I think I'm in a cranky mood today and prone to nitpicking.  Sorry.  At any rate, Matt Yglesias says about the Democratic Senators who are against changing the 60 vote requirement for cloture::
Several of these people say they support action to curb climate change. That can’t happen without filibuster reform. Several say they support comprehensive immigration reform. That can’t happen without filibuster reform. Several say they support a public option. That can’t happen without filibuster reform. 
This is not correct.  The public option certainly fits within the rules of reconciliation.   Either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax would almost certainly fit within reconciliation (although there are some complexities there).  Immigration reform, I agree, could not be done through reconciliation (although I don't think liberal immigration reform has any chance of simple majorities in both Houses of this Congress, anyway).  Should the Democrats do well this November, it's certainly possible for them to actually pass an FY 2012 budget in Spring 2011 with reconciliation instructions allowing for a bill with both public option and major climate change provisions, and to need only simple majorities to get that bill to the president.  Indeed, it would even be protected from non-germane amendments, which would not be the case for a regular bill in the Senate.

And it's worth pointing out that it's a perfectly coherent position to support substantive change but also support current Senate rules -- even if those rules make change (in any direction) less likely.  Yglesias has consistently argued for majoritarianism both on its own merits, and on the basis that liberals are better off risking conservative action in years like 2003-2006 as long as liberals can have their way when circumstances favor them.  On the former, I'll continue to disagree with him (although I think both of us would agree that there would be plenty of other anti-majoritarian elements in the American system of government even if things routinely passed the Senate with 51 votes).  On the latter, well, he could be right -- or not!  I don't think it's at all obvious that liberals are better off in the long run if party majorities are stronger to act in the Senate, and therefore I don't think it's correct to imply that someone who takes the other view isn't really for liberal priorities (or, a few years ago, that Gang of Fourteen Republicans were obviously not true conservatives). 


  1. "I don't think it's at all obvious that liberals are better off in the long run if party majorities are stronger to act in the Senate"

    Let's see...

    Liberals want change and reform; conservatives want the status quo.

    A simplification, but also a distillation. To the degree it is true obstruction better suits conservatism, inherently and structurally.

    Granted it is complicated (repeal would be easier!), but it still seems like damn good argument. Good enough so that I, a liberal, would roll the dice on filibuster reform.

    Does anyone know a comparably good counter-argument?

  2. Sure. Liberals in general may want change, but mainstream liberals are also (perhaps) far happier with the general policy status quo than are mainstream conservatives. There's nothing nearly as drastic that mainstream liberals support as the phasing out of social security,for example. We're probably a lot closer to Henry Waxman or Dave Obey's ideal point than we are to Paul Ryan or Tom Coburn's ideal point.

    That's the argument, at any rate.

  3. But what, exactly, does either party's attitude toward the general policy status quo have to do with the routine use of the filibuster? Why has the filibuster only recently become such a common thing? And, btw, are you fine with that? Are you thinking (or hoping) that filibuster use will return to "normal" at some point, and in the meantime Dems (and/or the majority) can fall back on reconciliation? (If the Dems can get over their aversion to using reconciliation, that is.) Would you agree that the way the filibuster is set up now makes it far too easy for the minority to block legislation? (Because they don't actually have to filibuster, etc., etc.)

    And, finally, are Paul Ryan and Tom Coburn truly representative of mainstream Republican sentiment? I think I must be in denial . . .

    And, more generally, I only started reading your blog recently. So can you point me to a post or other piece in which you argue in favor of retaining the filibuster? Leaving the issue of whether it hurts or helps liberals aside, what are its merits?

  4. In days past, before the era of the commuter Congress, opposing politicians often horse traded compromise during non-working hours. One familiar example is Reagan and Tip O'Neill hashing out TEFRA over Friday night poker games. Nowadays, many/most Congresspeople are home Friday nights.

    The commuter Congress seems like one good reason to oppose majoritarianism; as Congresspeople are around each other less, there's less basis for compromise, which makes majoritarianism more problematic.

    Germane to this discussion: when there's no longer an internal basis for negotiation (such as Reagan/O'Neill negotiating TEFRA over poker), the next check is the subsequent wrath of the electorate, such as the Democratic loss of the Confederate south after the Civil/Voting Rights act of the mid-60s.

    Thus, the question becomes: are red states redder than blue states are blue? Someone may know better than me, but it seems as though red states indeed are redder than blue states blue, which would seem to suggest that majoritarianism poses fewer risks for Republicans than Democrats.

  5. Jonathan,
    I asked for an argument and you gave one. Them Republicans are craaaazy, give them the reins and change will happen, buddy.

    As Emily Litella said, never mind.

    I keep forgetting that today's conservatives are not actually conservatives. I'm just too old. I keep confusing Republicans with Gerald Ford. Hell, I keep confusing them with Reagan.

  6. Jonathan,
    What is your take on the idea that it is not a question of 'if' but 'when' on the filibuster reform, so Democrats better do it when they will be the first to benefit from the rule changes?

  7. See the recent post, "Divided"...I don't think the current rules & norms are stable if we're going to have unified government, but we could easily return to divided government, and then Senate reform will be a lot less pressing.

    The other point is that while I do think reform is likely, there's a pretty wide range of possible reforms.

    As I've said, though, I do think that it's likely that we'll have some sort of reform relatively soon.

  8. Maybe most Democrats are more satisfied with the status quo than the most extreme Republicans, but I don't see how you can possibly claim that a voting majority of Democrats are more satisfied with the status quo than a voting majority of Republicans.

    It's that dynamic that's behind the current congressional imbalance in ambition. It's hardly surprising that the policies championed by the 41 most conservative senators are more conservative than the policies championed by the 59 most liberal senators are progressive. Once you start expanding the Republican caucus towards a voting majority, its policy vision constricts. (For example, your own example of social security privatization, which just failed outright and would have very likely still failed in a filibuster-less world.)

    A 60 vote Republican majority doesn't seem likely to happen for years - maybe decades - but it almost certainly would be far more moderate than the current caucus. We HAVE had a 50 vote Republican majority in the immediate past, and while they did a pretty lousy job, their grand policy vision basically seemed restricted to tax cuts and a Medicare expansion. Meanwhile, a Democratic majority freed from the requirement of scrounging for 60 votes could (and would, if the House is any indication) pursue a significantly broader and more progressive policy agenda than the current majority of 59-60 seems to have been willing to pursue. That's ignoring the likelihood that Democratic policy proposals are hobbled at the outset by their authors, who know how very high the bar is in the Senate.

    And honestly, even with a 60 vote requirement, the Democrats have pursued and enacted an agenda that shakes the status quo far more dramatically than any Republican Congress in living memory. Including Congresses during the period where the filibuster was used sparingly and 50 votes was a viable majority.


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