Wednesday, May 8, 2013

No, the Creation of the 60 Vote Senate Isn't Harry Reid's Fault

I really dislike this Republican talking point, repeated by former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe at an appearance at the University of Denver:

  • The majority has increasingly "filled up the amendment tree," making it harder for minority members to have any influence on legislation. 
  • Minority members increasingly respond to this by filibustering.
It's probably a nice thing for Snowe to believe; it makes her choice to go along with "filibuster everything" seem like a reaction to Democratic overreach rather than going along with a radical, norm-destroying group of Republicans.

But it's just plain wrong.

I'm pretty sure it's completely wrong for legislation: filibusters came first, and then filling the tree. I do recall that Mitch McConnell's immediate reaction to the 2008 election was to remind everyone that it took 60 votes to do anything in the Senate -- not that he would reluctantly be forced to make use of filibusters if his conference wasn't allowed to offer amendments, but just that it took 60 to do anything, as if that had always been the case. Nor do I recall any Republican offers to drop routine filibusters if only their amendments were allowed. Nor have Republicans only filibustered on those bills -- not even close to all of them -- in which amendments were offered. 

At any rate: as I've said before, and I'll say again when this gets trotted out: we have a perfectly good test on this claim, because if it was true that filibusters were only a reaction to "filling the tree" then it would be happening on legislation only. Nominations do not have amendments! And yet almost every nomination, beginning in January 2009, has been subjected to that same 60 vote requirement -- something entirely new at that point.

I'm on the side of the Republicans with respect to amendments -- I would very much like to get back to the kind of open amendments situation the Senate has traditionally protected. 

It just has nothing to do with the Republican choice of establishing the 60 vote requirement for almost everything. 


  1. By "getting back to the kind of open amendments situation the Senate has traditionally protected," are you referring to before Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell started filling the amendment tree when they were in the majority?

    I disagree with you that Republican obstructionism really began in January 2009. It's been party-centered for the GOP since the early part of the decade, perhaps even the late 1990s. I think Sean Theriault is on to something by identifying it as the "Gingrich Senators" (though I think he data and the way he's gone about making his argument aren't all that solid, and I don't think he's focused on party incentives enough, treating all senators individually.)

    1. Fair enough, but didn't Byrd invent filling the tree?

      I'd go back to January 1993: Dole initiated the practice of routine filibusters on all (almost all? I don't remember) major legislation. The Clinton WH really was surprised by the filibuster on the Clinton stimulus.

      My general understanding is that the creation of the 60 vote Senate is about a gradual ratcheting up over some 40 or so years, but with the two major discontinuities showing up in 1993 and 2009.

    2. Byrd invented it, but didn't govern exclusively by it.

      2009 did mark the adoption of "all partisan warfare, all the time." And it was a general ramping up over time. For my money, and I don't think we have a really good piece out there chronicling this, I still stick with the late 1990s and early 2000s as the beginning. And it lines up really well with the GOP moving post-policy. By 1997, the GOP was really beginning to run out of policy steam. Even without Monicagate, the GOP agenda from 1998-2000 consisted mostly of just gainsaying Clinton, even on things they kinda agreed with. Just about the only GOP policy ideas were old Contract ideas they hadn't really done (and just taxes): estate tax and marriage penalty. There were Republicans with "hobby horse" issues: arms control, education (vouchers), etc, but not much of a party agenda. You can see this in the Bush years, when whatever individual ideas they had fell a distant second to carrying Bush's water. NCLB? That thing we despised when Clinton proposed it? OK. An EXPANSION of entitlements? OK. Heck, when the regular business of Congress would spit out policy from 2001-2006, if it even annoyed the White House, it was quashed.

      I don't see January 2009 as the "codification" of the 60 vote Senate, because I really do not put it past the current crop of the GOP senators to go nuclear on day 1 of unified government.

  2. As a (now unfortunately former) Mainer, I've lost a lot of respect for Snowe as time passed. She liked to complain a lot about the polarisation, but I don't recall her ever trying to do anything about it. Along with most of the "Gang of 14," she was perfectly content to filibuster everything.

  3. I like "it's just PLAIN wrong," as JB's superhero catchphrase. Similar to Liz Lemon's, "Dealbreaker!" (And yes, Liz Lemon was a superhero)


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