Why filibuster reform could backfire big-time on Democrats

Running in the background during the fiscal cliff negotiations — if that’s what you can call the series of unrealistic proposals each side is making in the press — is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s push to curtail the filibuster.

Democrats won’t control the U.S. House for at least two more years, so the filibuster isn’t getting in the way of Reid and President Obama pursuing their legislative goals. Eliminating or limiting the scope of the filibuster would, however, allow Obama to push through his appointees more easily, and it could set a precedent for other expedited changes to Senate rules.

While both Republicans and Democrats lament the filibuster when in the majority but guard it jealously when in the minority, conservatives have traditionally been more sympathetic to the rule than liberals. That’s because the filibuster is seen as another brake on legislation, and conservatives tend to be more skeptical of a proliferation of new laws.

But Ramesh Ponnuru makes the interesting case in a Bloomberg View column that the filibuster’s true role is preventing change, regardless of ideology — and that liberals have more interest in keeping things more or less the way they are in Washington than conservatives do. Here’s the gist of his argument:

When the federal government was small, the filibuster helped to keep it that way because it protects the status quo. If American politics ever changed so much that most legislation aimed to pare back government, however, the filibuster would protect the big-government status quo. That day may seem impossibly far off, given the liberal confidence and conservative pessimism of this post-election period.

With the passage of the health-care law, however, liberalism finally finished the project of building the American welfare state. Its main job now is to protect and refine what has already been won. Matthew Yglesias, another liberal writer, said so at the time: “The crux of the matter is that progressive efforts to expand the size of the welfare state are basically done.”

If that’s right, then liberals have less to gain, and conservatives less to fear, from making it easier to pass new laws than either side now thinks.

Think, for instance, about potentially large changes to Obamacare. Most people assumed Obamacare’s status was settled by last month’s re-election of its namesake. But the refusal of many states to go along with their roles in carrying out the law, along with the emergence of previously unmentioned problems with the law’s implementation, means there’s a very high likelihood the law will have to be opened up to a serious reworking in the next few years. The same Democrats who want to change the filibuster now could, in the not-too-distant future, find themselves out of the majority in the Senate. In just four years, if a Republican wins the White House, a filibuster change could mean they find themselves totally locked out of the debate even if the GOP can’t get to 60 Senate seats. To paraphrase an old saying about big government, Senate rules expedient enough to give you everything you want are also expedient enough to take it all away.

There would be problems with that kind of approach, of course. For one, Republicans would invite a great deal of public backlash by making changes with only a narrow governing majority. Witness the 2010 electoral backlash against Democrats for the way they enacted Obamacare. Despite their sizable majorities, Democrats had to resort to procedural manipulations to overcome the objections not only of Republicans but of the more moderate senators in their own party.

Dramatic policy changes work better when the political buy-in is broader, which is one reason Obamacare remains unpopular. The filibuster in the Senate structurally helps make that more likely. It would be better on the whole to keep it in place. But, as Ponnuru points out, those who disagree might do well to be careful what they wish for.

– By Kyle Wingfield

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210 comments Add your comment

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

December 4th, 2012
11:58 am

Just appoint a Senatorial Czar to “adjudicate” the voting and be done with it.

whoops! didn’t mean to give the socialists any ideas…

Aesop's Fables and other Lib Economic Theories

December 4th, 2012
11:59 am

The way that obama ignores Congress, law and the Constitution, I don’t know why you wasted so much ink on this subject.

Don't Tread

December 4th, 2012
12:04 pm

“Senate rules expedient enough to give you everything you want are also expedient enough to take it all away”

Reminds me of another saying…government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take it all away. This is a threat to individual freedom (not that liberals care about that, except for themselves).

Building the welfare state was just a stepping stone to the bigger goal of perpetual one-party rule, with themselves in charge. If you like your freedoms, soon you will have to fight for them.

Dusty

December 4th, 2012
12:05 pm

Kyle, all this may be true but it is about as interesting as reading congressional minutes and speeches.

I’m sorry, I know you are trying to educate us to the “tricks’ of government but don’t they ever do anything stunning? We know Harry Reid (D) can be trusted only as far as you can throw him. So what’s new?

I’m interested but keep falling asleep. Oh well, may the scholars and the dastardlhy democrats be with you. Maybe we’ll even have a FILIBUSTER.

I’ll check back later to see who wins.

BW

December 4th, 2012
12:11 pm

Kyle

The filibuster is being abused. It should not be used to place holds on nominees simply because an amendment wasn’t allowed. At this point, the optics of the way the filibuster is being used does not look good for the current minority. As the saying goes, let’s cross that bridge when we get there on the Dems being in the minority. At the very least you should be forced to filibuster alas Mr Smith Goes to Washington. I say go for it….I can only imagine the havoc the Republicans will play on the Senate if the President has to replace a conservative justice. Let’s not pretend that one party is less political than the other and there would be this gentlemanly decorum in such a case. You are right that the Dems will have to stand on what they implement but if the President’s coalition gets the message that there are elections every two years instead every four, then the Dems have reason to feel comfortable about changing the rules. Don’t forget that many states have a Republican supermajority in their legislatures so how they govern will figure into the equation in 2014 as well (yes that goes for the Democratic supermajorities as well)

JDW

December 4th, 2012
12:14 pm

Simple fact is the current crop of Republicans have abused the right and it must change.

Lil' Barry Bailout - OBAMAPHONE!!!

December 4th, 2012
12:21 pm

There’s no reason that it “must change” other than Democrat liberal fascists don’t like any checks on their ability to screw up the country.

Progressive Humanist

December 4th, 2012
12:21 pm

Due to demographic changes and Republicans’ rigid philosophy (and hence, their inability to appeal to a growing number of voters) the chances of a Republican winning the White House in 2016 are very slim. And Kyle speaks of broad “political buy-in” as if Republicans over the last four years (or next four) would be willing to compromise and agree to anything the President wants. End the filibuster. Let’s go off the fiscal curb. Everybody’s taxes go up and then we can negotiate tax cuts for the middle class only. And Republicans can prepare themselves for defeat after defeat because they’re out of step with the American people and on the wrong side of history.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
12:26 pm

Progressive @ 12:21: Eight years ago, it was the Democrats who were doomed. We can see how that turned out. Four years is a long, long, long, long time in politics. Those who make big changes — like ending the filibuster — while ignoring that truth are likely to get burned in the end.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
12:28 pm

John Q @ 12:25: Article I, Section 5: “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings…”

The filibuster, and the majority vote needed to change it, has been the rule of the Senate for a long time. This post is not about the legality of changing it — that’s never been in question, as far as I know — but about the wisdom of doing so.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
12:30 pm

John Q @ 12:28: And time will tell if there’s a there there wrt this Democratic permanent majority. All I know is that politicians have come and gone, immigrants have come to our country, and demographics and party allegiances have changed, and there’s never been a real permanent majority in this country. It’s highly unlikely there ever will be.

Lil' Barry Bailout - OBAMAPHONE!!!

December 4th, 2012
12:33 pm

John Q, may I suggest that you read the Constitution? It isn’t that long, and you will find the answer to your question quite easily. I understand your slothfulness, laziness, and entitlement mentality, but honestly, you can do this one on your own.

CC

December 4th, 2012
12:38 pm

“And Republicans can prepare themselves for defeat after defeat because they’re out of step with the American people and on the wrong side of history.”

As were the Germans who opposed Hitler in the 1930’s, and the Russians who opposed Stalin . . .

leedart

December 4th, 2012
12:39 pm

Don’t worry about the filiabuster, I can’t wait for this state to turn blue again! All u new southerners that have taken this state backward for the last ten years will soon be out! Thank you god!

JDW

December 4th, 2012
12:41 pm

@Kyle…”The filibuster, and the majority vote needed to change it, has been the rule of the Senate for a long time.”

Indeed it has, but the abuse is a recent development that has been fine tuned by the current crop of Republicans.

Before 1987 there were about 40 fillibusters a term, following the Democratic majority of 1987 Republicans increased that the around 60 with a high of 80 in 1993-94. When Republicans came back to the majority in 1995 Democrats maintained the 60-80 number. However when Demcrats returned to the majority in 2007 Republicans fillibustered 135 times for the current term that number may top 200.

That is abuse pure and simple and must be addresed.

http://www.senate.gov/pagelayout/reference/cloture_motions/clotureCounts.htm

MarkV

December 4th, 2012
12:42 pm

Kyle’s concern about Democrats possibly suffering in the future from a reform of the filibuster rules is touching. After the abuse of filibuster by the Republicans, the reform would be good for the country. Isn’t that what Kyle should be concerned about, rather than what it would mean for Democrats IF they became minority in the senate?

Hillbilly D

December 4th, 2012
12:42 pm

and there’s never been a real permanent majority in this country. It’s highly unlikely there ever will be.

Totally agree with that. The elections are usually controlled by the middle and they have a short attention span. Usually, 8-12 years is about all any one party is going to get before they get sick of you. The only time this country was united for any length of time was WW II. Look how long the “unity” lasted after 9/11; not very long. You’re just not going to have unity in a large group; it’s against human nature.

As for the filibuster stuff, that’s just more political games.

Eight years ago, it was the Democrats who were doomed. We can see how that turned out.

After LBJ won in ‘64, the Republicans were doomed, after McGovern in ‘72, the Democrats were doomed, after Ford ‘76, the Republicans were doomed again, after Reagan in ‘80, the Democrats were doomed again, Clinton came along and the Republicans were doomed, followed by the Democrats being doomed by the Contract for America, 2006 the Democrats were doomed again and now it’s the Republicans who are doomed again. That’s just the highlights of the ones I’ve lived through. The scoop is folks, neither of these parties is going anywhere, anytime soon and there’ll be no other party emerging on the horizon. Both parties are in this monopoly together and they’ll see to it that it stays the way it is. It’s their own self-preservation they care about, not ours.

JamVet

December 4th, 2012
12:43 pm

That makes three out of the past four elections that the far right wing has gotten pummeled. (Ask Mssrs, West, Walsh, Allen, Akin and Mourdoch.)

Even so, is it possible that the awful Democratic Party could open some back door to let the bungling and deadly neocons right back in? Of course.

But you guys just ran the weakest, most pitiful presidential candidate in at least eighty years. And the entire slates that you trotted out in both of the past two presidential elections were beyond abysmal. They were laughably absurd.

Worse, the demographics are REALLY beginning to work again the insular, intolerant Lily White Party.

And worse than that? The cons have demonstrated ZERO ability, desire or inclination to learn from their devastating mistakes of the past 12 years.

In fact they are doubling down on the stupid! (The War on Women, lazy, stupid blacks on the Dem plantation, the 47% claptrap, protesters are scum and on and on and on and on…)

So…. the future looks truly bleak for this hijacked, dysfunctional GOP.

And here’s to hoping that you rubes, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Neal Boortz et al keep up the good work!

I’ll just keep making more popcorn and love watching the serial train wrecks unfold…

MANGLER

December 4th, 2012
12:44 pm

I though the Senate was there to have final say so over Congress if need be. Then the Supreme Court, just in case. So the filibuster merely serves as a way for Congresspersons to annoy each other into inaction.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
12:46 pm

John Q @ 12:38: There is nothing serious about the president’s current proposal. A serious proposal would move in the direction of resolution. He knows the GOP would never agree to $4 in tax hikes for every $1 in spending cuts. Heck, a large number of Democrats in Congress wouldn’t go for that. It was for show, pure and simple.

JamVet

December 4th, 2012
12:48 pm

…and there’s never been a real permanent majority in this country.

Technically true, but someone has forgotten their history.

The Republicans were the minority in the US Congress for forty straight years.

FORTY.

Most of those in BOTH the House and Senate.

At this rate that record may be challenged. But this time vis a vis the Executive Branch…

Jefferson

December 4th, 2012
12:49 pm

If the GOP wasn’t so boneheaded you wouldn’t have this kind of problem, never did before — what is your problem ?

Jerry Eads

December 4th, 2012
12:55 pm

We’ve only been here 236 years, Kyle. Think long term (like maybe a thousand). Should we actually be so competent as to last that long (big assumption), will we be better or worse off without the filibuster in 2776? My guess is that without would be a good choice.

Also in the long run, seems like a two (or three?) party system is not only good but necessary for the country’s survival as we know it. If the GOP (certainly nowadays never, EVER to be confused with conservative) becomes extinct, as it certainly seems to be working toward, perhaps another party will rise to take it’s place. Libertarians, anyone?

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
12:57 pm

JDW @ 12:41: Let’s not forget the way Democrats abused the filibuster, starting with the invention of Borking court nominees. Numbers don’t tell the whole story. And, to the degree they do, it’s just as important to look at how many times cloture was defeated, not just the number of times it was filed. The Dems’ record in sustaining the filibuster in 1995-96 stacks up right next to the GOP’s from 2007-present.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
12:58 pm

MarkV @ 12:42: As I said in the OP, I do think having a brake on rapid legislative change is what’s good for the country.

As for “concern” — that’s your word. I’d describe it more as warning them there’s a reason to think in the long term rather than just the short term.

MarkV

December 4th, 2012
12:58 pm

Isn’t it rather funny when Kyle complains about the White House proposal as not being serious because the GOP would never go for the proposed, after the Republicans make a proposal the Democrats would never go for?

JDW

December 4th, 2012
12:59 pm

@Kyle…”There is nothing serious about the president’s current proposal.”

There is no reason to make another proposal until the Republicans get over the hump of tax rates going up on the 2%…they are going up one way or another.

Georgia, The " New Mississippi "

December 4th, 2012
1:00 pm

Come on Kyle,
Shake the cob webs out and get back to being a real journalist. Report the news and stop trying to create it. Use credible sources and factual data in your arguments.
.

CC

December 4th, 2012
1:00 pm

“If the GOP wasn’t so boneheaded you wouldn’t have this kind of problem, never did before — what is your problem ?”

Probably because there are Americans who take their stand on the solid ground of ethics and morality rather than succumbing to the wiles of a political prostitute. Right will always be right, and it is not changed by circumstances, time or demographics. Those who can forsake the principles upon which America was founded in pursuit of personal plunder of others’ wealth had no principles to begin with and no hope of ever knowing the meaning of living by a personal moral code.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
1:01 pm

John Q @ 12:53: I’ve said before, I don’t think the GOP can get everything it wants. And I haven’t exactly endorsed its proposals. But Obama’s proposal smacks of, as David Gergen said the other day, trying to rub the GOP’s nose in it rather than trying to get things done. That’s one good way for politicians to lose the public faster than they might have otherwise.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
1:02 pm

Jerry @ 12:55: I’ll let you do all the worrying about what happens in 2776.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
1:03 pm

MarkV @ 12:58: See my 1:01.

MarkV

December 4th, 2012
1:03 pm

Kyle Wingfield @12:58 pm
“As I said in the OP, I do think having a brake on rapid legislative change is what’s good for the country.”

You did, and I disagree, after the experience of the past four years.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
1:05 pm

MarkV @ 1:03: And you are, of course, free to disagree with me. But don’t claim I didn’t even say what I thought was best.

Hillbilly D

December 4th, 2012
1:06 pm

I’ll let you do all the worrying about what happens in 2776.

None of us will be here and neither will the U.S. Might not be anybody here for that matter. Somebody else can worry about that, I ain’t got that kind of time on my hands.

MarkV

December 4th, 2012
1:09 pm

Kyle Wingfield @ 1:03 pm

Your opinion and David Gergen’s. Let’s see how public will view the proposals, considering the overwhelming support of the proposed increase of the tax rates for the upper 2%, and the resistance to the entitlement cuts the Republicans propose.

jd

December 4th, 2012
1:10 pm

The Founding Fathers rejected super majority requirements — we should too… The Senate is not function as the Fathers intended…

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
1:13 pm

John Q: If you’re going to rule out as “patently false” areas where the results are mixed, I don’t think we can have much of a discussion.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
1:15 pm

Btw, here’s a question for the Obama defenders on the thread today: Why do you believe his plan, which raises taxes and spending (if you count only the guaranteed spending changes he’s offered), is “balanced,” whereas the GOP plan to raise taxes and cut spending is not “balanced”?

jd

December 4th, 2012
1:16 pm

Kyle — R’s have filibustered twice the volume of 95-96 — 140 plus times compared to less than 70 — and in the 1950’s — the filibuster was employed only once a biennial.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
1:18 pm

jd @ 1:16: As I said earlier, look at the number of times cloture hasn’t been invoked (i.e., the number of times the filibuster was sustained). After all, you can filibuster to slow down debate or to pressure the majority to make concessions on the bill, not just to stop it completely.

Lil' Barry Bailout - OBAMAPHONE!!!

December 4th, 2012
1:21 pm

John Q: Kyle – why do the R’s care so much about the wealthiest of the wealthy?
———–

Change “wealthy” to “small business” and ask again.

One other reason: Rs understand that we don’t have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem. And more government spending means slower economic growth in the long term.

That’s why.

Why do Ds want bigger government and slower growth?

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
1:22 pm

John Q @ 1:18: And if you believe marginal tax rates are the sole determinant of growth and productivity — something I’ve never claimed — then you’ll believe that was more than coincidence.

JamVet

December 4th, 2012
1:22 pm

Right will always be right and right wing claptrap will always be right wing claptrap.

MarkV

December 4th, 2012
1:23 pm

Kyle Wingfield @ 1:15 pm

The answer to your question is easy. A “balance” does not mean that something, anything, is on both sides. Balance means a distribution that is proportionate. Obviously, the Democrats do not believe that what the GOP proposes is proportionate.

Tiberius - pulling the tail of the left AND right when needed

December 4th, 2012
1:26 pm

“Simple fact is the current crop of Republicans have abused the right and it must change.”

JDW once again confuses statistics with facts. A cloture vote can be on anything; a bill or one of various amendments to bills. Clotures can be used to stop bills in their tracks early, or stop them later on when they have morphed into something unwieldy. There was a flurry of useless bills coming out of the Pelosi-led House beginning in 2007 and 2008 which needed to be slowed down or stopped completely. So once again JDW takes the simplistic route instead of the analytical route to try to make a misbegotten point.

That being said, Kyle is right. Be careful whet you wish for; you may just get it. And despite AmVet’s usual bleatings about national elections, STATES elect Senators and Representatives, and there is little indication of the electoral morass he loves to repeat ad nauseum regarding Republican wipeouts at the state level.

However, I have always been in favor of relaxing the filibuster rule. I’ve been consistent in my opinion that if you are against a particular bill, then be willing to stand up and speak against it in the well of the Senate. To that end, I’d still like a strict filibuster on budget and spending bills – maybe relaxing it down to 55 votes, but not requiring any long-winded speeches to hold up those types of legislation. Anything else like appointments? Let the bellicose have their day.

iggy

December 4th, 2012
1:27 pm

The filibuster should not be busted. In todays “everything is a tragedy and must be handled/passed without due diligence, because its ultimatly for the good of the children” the filibuster is a MUST!!!

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
1:27 pm

The rest of us, John Q, will recognize that America’s place in the world economy in the 1950s was very different from our place today, that globalization means competition is greater, that effective tax rates haven’t changed as dramatically as marginal tax rates (because rates aren’t the only component of taxes), that federal spending has also changed dramatically since then (federal spending as a percentage of GDP average 17.6% in the 1950s — do you want to go back to that?), that the regulatory burden on businesses has changed dramatically since then as well … I could go on.

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
1:28 pm

MarkV @ 1:23: And what is “proportionate” about only raising taxes and not cutting spending?

Kyle Wingfield

December 4th, 2012
1:30 pm

After all, MarkV, all the president is proposing wrt spending cuts is that the two sides talk about it next year (after he’s already gotten everything he wants).