Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Manchin-Toomey and the Filibuster

The background checks portion of the bill will be defeated today. It was being added as an amendment to the bill, and under a consent agreement all amendments needed 60 votes; it's not going to get there.

Some notes:

1. The correct thing to say about this is that the amendment was defeated by filibuster. It's a little tricky, but that's the essence of it. The UC agreement under which the amendment (and all amendments to this bill) is considered requires 60 votes; that's agreed to in order to avoid a cloture vote, which is necessary because of the standing GOP plan to filibuster everything. It is wrong to say that "Senate procedure requires 60 votes." Senate procedure only requires 60 votes in case of filibuster. Which, under current conditions, means in virtually all cases. Manchin-Toomey is defeated by filibuster.

2. All that said: anything that gets only four Republicans wasn't going to win in the House. Right now the House is split 232-201. Four Republican Senators is 9% of GOP Senators; the same percentage in the House would be 20 Republican votes, which means a tiny majority in the totally unrealistic case that every Democrat voted for the bill. So there's a very good chance there isn't even a simple majority in the House. Which wouldn't be close to enough: for Republicans to be willing to take up the bill at all, most mainstream conservatives would want the bill to come up (although not necessarily be willing to vote for it). That's simply not going to happen on a bill that gets 4 of 45 Republican Senators.

3. It's also important to remember that Manchin-Toomey is one of a series of possible provisions in an overall bill, and that filibuster rules also protect the majority to some extent. The 60 vote threshold that's blocking Manchin-Toomey may be necessary to prevent poison pill amendments from being adopted. Indeed, knowing that it takes 60 to get anything into the bill should change the opponents' strategy: instead of trying to design an amendment that would get a majority and then lead to the majority party abandoning the bill, the opponents may simply design amendments that will lose but supply votes which can be exploited later on.

4. Note that in the House, governed as it is by strict majority party rule, the majority party doesn't have to worry about popular amendments (or bills) that they don't want; they simply refuse to allow votes on them.

5. It is not entirely clear that a majority party rule system in which popular amendments and bills do not receive any vote at all, even if they would get a majority of the full chamber, is more democratic than a system in which everyone can force votes on any bill or amendment, but it takes 60 votes for passage. It's not even totally clear that a chamber in which every amendment and bill could always get a simple-majority vote is more democratic (because of the poison pill problem, and more generally because of unstable "majorities" on issues), but that may be irrelevant because in practice it's hard to get that middle ground.


  1. #5 is well worth considering.

    It does make me curious about something: If you were given authority to redesign parliamentary procedures in America, what would they look like? Crib from somewhere else? Remake them from scratch?

    Maybe you've already written an article, but the link isn't immediately obvious.

  2. Even the measure on trafficking and straw purchases failed, 58-42. Of the Republicans, only Collis, Kirk, and Murkowski voted for it.

    1. And there were also a couple of pro-gun amendments that narrowly lost. Unless Democrats see significant gains in the midterms, I think we'll see this issue shift back to the states.

    2. Yes, I think that's already happening, with states going in different directions.

      According to a Pew poll done in February, 74% of NRA households favored background checks for private guns sales and sales at gun shows. (p. 12)

    3. Scott, do you think that many NRA members would support background checks that Obama's own DOJ says would be ineffective?

    4. I'm not really ready to debate what NRA members believe, but this is what they told the poll takers. And while it's just one poll, I think Pew is considered pretty reputable.

      I doubt many of them read DOJ reports, but I could be wrong.

    5. Scott, the opinion of NRA members on this point is irrelevant, because it's based on the mistaken perception that the background checks proposed would decrease crime. Based on the President's own information, which we know through a leaked DOJ memo, background checks would not be effective without gun registration (which is extremely controversial, according to polls).

      Sometimes polls just prove how easy it is to fool people.

  3. I'm curious: will the GOP (or the filibuster in general) be held accountable by a public that wanted some of these amendments to go through by a very wide margin? On that note, perhaps the confusing nature of these procedures stymies both democracy and accountability.

    Will be interesting to see the public response and how the media convey what happened in coming days...

  4. An important point, of course, is the distribution of support for gun control. Using 2012 polling figures, this chart shows that gun control supporters tend to be concentrated in large states (which I should have realized immediately). In only 13 states did more than half of the respondents favor tighter controls. Those states account for 45 percent of the total population, but as we know, have only 26 senators.

  5. An analysis of how progressives need to learn how to lobby better. We did NOT need to lose this battle:


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