Friday, December 10, 2010

The Sanders Speech

Bernie Sanders, as anyone who has flipped past C-SPAN2 today has no doubt noticed, has embarked on a marathon speech (mostly alone, sometimes with others) against the tax deal.  He's into Hour 6 as I write this.  Technically, I don't think it can really be called a filibuster, because he's not delaying any action, but this is what lots of people have claimed they want to see.  So?

Gosh, I hate to say "told you so", but:
Republicans wouldn't fill the time reading recipes or from the phone book  They have large staffs, and an nation full of professional and amateur conservative wordsmiths.  They would have plenty of material to use.
In the old days, Senators engaged in a filibuster would read recipes or otherwise stray off topic. No need for that now! Not only do Senators have large staffs who could produce content, but there's a whole big internet available. If I were advising the GOP in that situation, I'd tell them to let conservative bloggers know that they can have their big chance for immortality: post something good, and a Republican Senator will read it on the floor of the Senate....Excellent way to rev up the conservative blogosphere, no? Meanwhile, by forcing Republicans to perform a "real" filibuster, Democrats would transform a 24 hour network that millions of Americans get in their homes into a 24 hour Republican propaganda outlet. How is that possibly good for the Democrats? 
Both written in response to liberals who thought Republicans would somehow be humiliated by having to hold the floor with "live" filibusters.

Now, do any liberals think that Sanders is humiliating their side of the argument?  I very much doubt it.  He is, of course, not reading recipes or reading from the phone book.  He's been staying on topic, more or less, giving a lengthy defense of his ideas about government and policy and how, in his view, the tax deal undermines policies he favors.  Indeed, as I've listened on and off today, he's read from Ariana Huffington and quoted Bruce Bartlett -- just as I predicted!  Well, sort of.  The real question is: does anyone doubt that a dozen Senators could keep this going, with more or less the same quality of  rhetoric, indefinitely?

(And it's worth noting: Sanders isn't actually filibustering, and he wants to talk; that's the whole point.  If a group wanted to keep a filibuster going but needed a break, they could do a quorum call that would allow them to rest until the majority could produce enough Senators on the Senate floor.  Under current rules and practices, it's easy to keep a filibuster going).

Whatever one thinks of majoritarian democracy, and whatever one thinks of various proposals for filibuster reform or elimination in the future, I hope everyone gets that under current rules, there is absolutely no advantage to the majority to force a minority larger than one or two Senators to engage in a "live" filibuster.  There is simply no point in doing it. 


  1. Thanks for bringing up Sanders' speech, not many of the usual suspect bloggers are discussing it, which I think is unfortunate since this is, or at least should be, very newsworthy. It's quite fascinating what Sanders is doing, and I think quite clever as well since he'll definitely get a lot of coverage when this all wraps up.

    I've watched quite a lot of what Sanders has said this afternoon, and it's pretty close to being a coherent, albeit absurdly lengthy, speech. It's incredibly articulate and makes the kind of arguments that many Americans agree with but which generally do not get heard in the mainstream political debate. Cynical Washington insiders probably see it as little more than a strange, quixotic effort from a quixotic senator, but I think it's captivating and probably a lot of other folks do as well.

  2. C-Span calls it a a filibuster, and Senator Sanders promised to filibuster the President's compromise.

    As a speech, yes - it's absurdly long.

    So, what's the difference between an absurdly long speech and a filibuster?

    He's gone on about the payroll tax holiday as a ploy to defund SS, how extending U.I. at unemployment rates >7.2% has ALWAYS been an easy bipartison agreement, outsourcing, breaking up too-big-to-fail banks, contra that - the strength and value of community banking, and a number of other topics - the common thread is the how policies since Reagan have constituted an orchestrated attack on the American middle class - my favorite topic.

    Overlong? Upon further review, only maybe - and every bit of it is spot on.


  3. .....there is absolutely no advantage to the majority to force a minority larger than one or two Senators to engage in a "live" filibuster. There is simply no point in doing it.

    You're addressing too narrow a question here. There may be no advantage to forcing live filibusters per se, but I think what people who call for that are actually frustrated about is the majority's willingness to capitulate to minority obstructionism without ever taking the case to the people, as it were. Doing that would have to involve some kind of coordinated strategy, of which forcing the live filibuster might (or might not) be one part. But certainly such a strategy, if it were any good, wouldn't stop with that; it would also have to include, say, the president making a huge point of what the minority was doing, maybe busing demonstrators to Washington to surround the Capitol and demand that the blocked measure get a vote, etc. It would all take some savvy, which maybe puts the whole effort beyond the capabilities of Democrats. But forcing the live filibuster might be one element -- a way of giving the good guys some tangible symbol of obstruction to point to other than Harry Reid's scheduling notes.

  4. Jon,
    To pick up on Jeff's point, I think liberals want a live filibuster because they don't believe conservatives have real logic to their arguments. This is, of course, natural in a polarized system. But, as a liberal, I have to admit that I agree (although I am unable to know if the reason is because conservative arguments ACTUALLY are bunk, or if my bias just blinds me to any merit they might have).

    Thus, Sanders can talk for 6 hours because he has a point. At least, liberals think he has a point. Conservatives watching it likely hear noise. Essentially, liberals expect a DADT debate to, eventually, involve box-turtles, a long tax debate to eventually lead to the phrase "trickle-down", and a DREAM debate to get around to saying that immigrants bring in leprosy. And liberals cannot understand that such an utterance wouldn't lead to public outcry and that liberals wouldn't automatically win the debate.

    Conservatives likely think that Bernie Sanders has called for an end to capitalism today, and I fully expect to see some part of it excerpted on Beck/Limbaugh/whomever where Sanders mentions people "needing help" or something, and that morphs into "from each according to ability, to each according to need." And conservatives also don't understand that non-conservatives don't react as viscerally as they do to abused quotes from Marx.

  5. Seems to me that if Bernie's rallied some liberal spines -- the spines in Congress. Putting the onus on Republicans, tax hikes for all but the richest who don't really need a break -- might work. I'm betting both Representatives and Senators are hearing from their constituents, and will continue to do so, over the weekend. Maybe those apathetic liberals will get off their duffs and pick up their phones.

    If it does work, my hat goes off to the Gentleman from Vermont.

  6. Matt,

    Yes, it's probably true that part of the fantasy is that Republicans will undermine themselves if given enough rope, but that's obviously false -- and we don't normally think that way about anything else. No one thinks that if only independent voters were exposed to more Fox News, they would as a consequence embrace liberal thinking.

    And, Jeff, I do think it makes sense for liberals to want *Democrats* to make the case for their policies (even though, practically, it's not apt to really change anything). But a live filibuster means that the other part is the one making its case. It just doesn't work the way the fantasy wants it to work.

  7. If the minority party was made to filibuster keeping the middle class tax cuts you can bet your sweet blog there would be hay to be made.


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