Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Filibuster Can't Defeat Gun Control

Today seems to be Beat Up on Harry Reid Day. Dan Savage:
Republicans regard first and second graders as expendable. Wish Dems felt the same about the filibuster.
And, sure, might as well quote Wil Wheaton:
@fakedansavage I wonder if people sending thousands of post cards that say "I told you so" to Harry Reid would get movement on reform?
Justin Green notes that Reid has threatened majority-imposed Senate reform over judges, but:

But if you're a liberal, don't get your hopes up about Reid doing the same thing to get a vote on gun control.

The why is easy: many of the Senators who are softly in favor of a vote on gun control really don't want to have to actually take that vote. In other words, a red-state Democrat is fine saying she supports the idea of talking about passing stricter gun laws, provided she doesn't have to cast the vote. The filibuster allows her to say one thing while not having to act on that position. 
This is all...well, it's all beside the point.

If you care about substance, then what matters here is getting something that can pass the Senate, pass the House, and get signed into law.

And the filibuster basically has nothing to do with that. You need something that (1) Barack Obama is willing to sign; that (2) John Boehner is willing to support -- or at least willing to put on the House floor with the knowledge that it has the votes; and that (3) can get 60 votes in the Senate.

For bill after bill after bill, and almost certainly including gun legislation, there is nothing that fulfills conditions (1) and (2) without also being able to fulfill condition (3). That is, anything that can get through the House and that the president is willing to sign will get at least 60 votes in the Senate. The filibuster doesn't matter.

Now, as far as reluctance to change filibuster rules...it is true, as Green says, that there are plenty of times when Democrats don't want to vote on something. But I really don't think that's what's going on here. Indeed, while it's true that politicians may not always see it that way, the truth is there's probably not very much difference in electoral terms between voting on a bill and voting on cloture; any decent media consultant can surely make an attack ad on the latter as easily as on the former. The main reason that Senators want to preserve the traditional Senate is because it gives individual Senators considerable influence; the secondary reason is because partisan incentives include the fear of what the other party will do when they are in control. I think efforts to duck votes are really far behind those reasons. After all, a more party-run Senate would be better, not worse, at limiting floor votes to only what the majority party wants to vote on -- as a quick look at the House can confirm.

The reason that Harry Reid is more interested in nomination reform than legislative reform right now is very simple: there's no divided government on nominations (since the House isn't involved), and so reform would actually make a substantial difference. On legislation, switching to a majority party dictatorship in the Senate would make little if any difference, so the incentives for doing it are tiny.

I realize that those who want gun legislation don't trust Harry Reid (who is rarely with them on these issues). But this has nothing to do with Reid. It has everything to do with the context of divided government.


  1. Is it clear now that the entire GOP will make good on their tacit filibuster approach for the gun bills? Last reported it was only something like 10-12 GOP Senators coming out on wanting to filibuster, led by Cruz and Rubio. That is not nearly all 45.

  2. I could see a strong benefit for red state Republicans in doing a talking filibuster on gun control instead of a silent filibuster. They would get a lot more press on it, and it would eventually fail.

    They're really caught in a bind. As long as they control the message, then this is about freedom. But once Bloomberg starts putting major bucks behind his version, this will become about crime. And they are on the wrong side of that message.

    I think that the Republicans are preparing to fold on gun control. It's time for Feinstein to get out her ban again.

  3. The point about divided government makes sense in the abstract. But I don't really believe it would cause Reid to change the filibuster if Dems somehow take the House in 2014 (or 2016). It's not all his fault sure but it is some his fault.

    1. I'm extremely skeptical that Reid has very much personal latitude on this. If he was really the problem, then the Senate Democrats caucus would be upset with him, and there really hasn't been a whisper of that.

  4. Sorry, I don't understand. How is allowing a majority vote in the Senate party dictatorship?

    1. I probably am guilty of some shorthand there, but generally: it's not just a question of getting a single majority vote on one bill; it's also about controlling which amendments are offered, because there's every possibility that there is no stable majority on this, and most, issues.

      That is, if all amendments are allowed (and need only a simple majority), then the bill is likely to collapse, because some amendment(s) will be adopted that will lose the bill votes on final passage.

      The problem with majority-party-imposed reform is that once you establish that principle, then it's hard to see how you don't wind up with a majority party dictatorship, much like what the House has. If you don't want that, then a negotiated bipartisan set of reforms, even under the threat of majority-party-imposed reform, is far preferable.


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