Sunday, 5 December 2010

Filibusters Are No Fun These Days - but we can fix em!

Long term readers of this blog will know that I blame the evils of the current filibuster ssystem in the Senate for just about everything that goes wrong in America. But perversely, the Republican gains in November's midterm elections have actually made it marginally more likely that Democrats might have the will and ability to actually fix this system. And Josh Marshall points out the perverse incentives that make the current system so terribly unworkable.
In the outgoing Congress it would have meant getting all 60 Senators to stay on the floor indefinitely while the GOP only had to make sure one senator was on the floor at any one time to raise an objection to ending debate. Maybe two at any one time if you figure the need for occasional bathroom breaks. And since each party is going to have somewhere on the order of at least 40 senators, taking shifts indefinitely just isn't a problem. And even though people think you've got to sit there reading the phone book or talking forever or whatever else, you don't. You don't have to do anything except sit there and be ready to stand up for 30 seconds and make an objection. So while the majority needs 60 Senators cooling their heels on the floor, the minority can just have one or two sitting there playing Angry Birds on their iPhones.

Here's another part of the equation. Everyone knows you need 60 votes to break a filibuster. But it's not 3/5 of the votes, it's an absolute 60. That's why you'll note that when a filibuster is a broken it's usually by a vote of 60 to 30-something. In other words, the folks in the minority, the folks filibustering, don't even need to show up. I'd like to say they can just dial it in. But actually they don't even need to do that.

These are, to put it mildly, very perverse incentives.
When Mr. Smith goes to Washington these days, he doesn't make heroic speeches for hours on end until he collapses with exhaustion. No, he just stands up and says, "I object," then proceeds to check his e-mail, while 60 of his colleagues scramble to try and get some work done.

The filibuster was never a part of the Constitutional design of the Senate. It was created by accident in 1805 by America's Worst Vice President Aaron Burr (shortly after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a Duel. No, seriously!), and no one noticeduntil years later that the procedural change led to this possibility.

And for a while it meant dramatic scenes of Senators doing marathon speaking sessions, and literally peeing themselves on the Senate floor because they couldn't afford to leave the chamber lest they break the filibuster. Dramatic stuff. But it's not like that any more.

Senators no longer have to actually speak up about the bills they are trying to block. They can just make sure it never comes to a vote.

Time to put a stop to this nonsense.

Oh, and for the record - let's remember that the so-called glory days of marathon filibustering was not some brave stand in favor of the oppressed minority. Actually, it was used for such noble causes as blocking civil rights reform and preventing the passage of anti-lynching measures. If today's Strom Thurmonds want to block unemployment insurance, or insist on tax cuts for millionaires, let them have the courage to display that shame on the Senate floor at the very least.

Or better yet, let's let the majority actually get on with leading the country.

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