Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On filibustering

As a historian I might be thought to be writing on unauthorized 19th century military expeditions of rowdy and bombastic cowboys and freebooters, but I'm actually writing on boring Senate procedural filibustering. The Senate Filibuster used to be a real show. A Senator would have to talk--literally--without pause to hold up Senate business, thus waiting for the other Senators to retire so that a quorum to continue was lost or enouch of the opposition left the chamber to tip the scales of the vote to be taken on a dreaded bill. Of course the last famous filibusters of this style well deployed against Civil Rights reforms in the 1960s and the procedural quirk of the Senate was subsequently reformed to save Senators the trouble of having to speak for hours on end. The result is the current system whereby an indivdual Senator announces their intention to filibuster whereby the Senate simply stalls until 60 of his fellows vote to proceed, getting all the benefits of an old style filibuster without any of the accompanying pain and theatrics.

Of course, a party in minority, particularly the current uncharacteristically small minority Republicans in the Senate have (41) will wish to use this, its only real check on the majority, as often as they feel they must when it seems unlikely that enough of their opponents will defect. As the Senate was designed without the idea that it would be the realm of two institutionalized and entrenched parties that would also exist in the House of Representatives (not to mention without the notion that it would directly represent the people), the filibuster rule of the Senate has been a useful and appropriate innovation to retain the spirit of the original expectation that the Senate would be a check on the lower house and more slow and deliberative in the legislative process. Unfortunately, frustrated Democrats in the blogosphere are displeased with the "slow" pace of "change" currently coming out of the U.S. Congress and they have set their sights on the filibuster as the prime culprit. Of course, when Democrats were in the minority, the filibuster was a tool they employed often enough, but now, some claim, Republicans have abused the process.

Another quirk in this situation is that the Senate, under normal circumstances, cannot change its rules except through the vote of a super majority of two thirds--except at the beginning of a new session where the body only needs a simple majority or a tie with Biden's tie-break vote to change the rules. As long as they take on no other business before the rule changes, a simple majority can change all the rules if they desire it. The idea is that if they proceed to other business then the "new" Senate implicitly accepts all of the "old" Senate's rules and therefore must accept the super majority rule for amending. One thing I'm not clear on about how this works is how one accounts for the senate ever being old or new given that two-thirds of that body is always in office, unlike the House which actually can be completely new every two years.

Part of this is sour grapes. When out of power, both parties use the filibuster to prevent things they don't like and cannot possibly defeat in any other way. And both parties, when in power, bemoan the use of the filibuster by the other side. So some of this is just silly unreflective partisan nonsense. But some of this is a realization in the part of radicals that the filibuster is, inherently, a conservative tool, preventing all change of the status quo no matter if defined as good or bad. As such, it can and always will be deployed against reform in any direction. Liberals would deploy the filibuster against deregulation, legislative repeals, and all manner of "reform" they clearly do not like. Conservatives have acted likewise. But when you have a 57 Senator majority, plus two caucusing independents, it is understandable that true believers get frustrated that the minority can so easily gum up the works. But given the scope of any "reform" and the ramifications it might have, it is still somewhat mind-boggling that on the verge of massive electoral reverses the Democrats and their most radical supporters would urge the destruction of what may one day soon be their only means of halting "reforms" they do not support.

Range of the moment thinking is often characterized by the complete absence of long-term thinking. It is all around us, but no more pathetically than in a national political leadership that runs trillion dollar annual deficits without blushing. By advocating a rule change by which to silence their opponents, radicals on the left may actually be enabling their opponents to easily ignore their shrieks of protest in the future when they aren't in the majority. So while I oppose such a rule change as essentially dangerous to minority rights, I will not feel sorry for lefties when this one--if they manage to pass it--comes back to bite them in the ass.

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