Filibuster reform? OMFG!

All the returning Democratic Senators sign a letter calling for filibuster reform.

Could filibuster reform actually happen? I’ve been dreaming of it, but I doubted the votes were there after the November losses. Maybe I was wrong to doubt.

Many years ago, shortly after Richard Nixon’s landslide re-election, I (as a first-year public policy student) was crying into my beer in the presence of the legendary Richard Neustadt. After all, according to everything we were learning about politics, Nixon was entering his second term with enormous political capital, and therefore capable (from my perspective) of doing enormous damage. Remember, this was long before anyone thought of Watergate as a real threat to the President’s power.

Neustadt was reassuring, not only in this specific case, but in general: “Nixon doesn’t understand limits. He will be destroyed.” He turned out to be right. (Neustadt usually turned out to be right.) In a later conversation, when I expressed surprise that Sam Ervin, the last surviving member of Richard Russell’s segregationist gang, should become a hero of Constitutional government, Neustadt reminded me that it was Russell, more than anyone else, who helped Douglas MacArthur “fade away.”

If I were to try to generalize, Neustadt was asserting his faith in the Madisonian system in which excess on the part of one political actor would be punished by other political actors attempting to maintain their own power.

During the Bush II era, Republicans on the Hill abandoned their institutional loyalties and took a purely partisan stance that had them supporting the most outrageous claims of executive power. After Obama’s election, they shifted quickly from monarchism to whiggery, but with the same willingness to ignore all limits to get their way. And the Democrats seemed to lack the internal discipline to strike back.

Maybe that’s changing now, and maybe Neustadt’s Madisonian faith will be vindicated yet again. But it’s important to remember that Madisonianism is not self-executing. As Franklin said, we have a republic: if we can keep it. The theocrat/plutocrat/nativist coalition now doing business as the GOP has gone unchecked for too long. Meantime, kudos to Tom Udall and his fellow “young bulls” for forcing filibuster reform onto the Senate’s agenda.

Footnote If you wanted to be cynical, you might say that “centrist” Dems and near-Dems such as Lieberman and Pryor are acting consistently; when they were potential 60th votes for legislation, they wanted a working majority of 60; now that they are potential 50th votes, they want a working majority of 50. Whatever the motivation, I’ll take it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “Filibuster reform? OMFG!”

  1. What do you mean by "whiggery" to which Republicans shifted after Obama's election? Wikipedia states:

    Whiggery may mean:

    * Whiggism, support for the principles of the British Whig Party of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century

    * Whiggishness, a more cosmic attitude on progress, liberalism, and the arrow of time in history.

  2. Maybe the best hope for some kind of action is that they get one day to do it. Seems the senate Dems do better with less opportunity to muddle around. And even the thick as a brick senate Dems gotta know if they let this one slip away they are toast.

  3. We don't know what the filibuster reforms, if any, will look like, but I'm pretty sure that they won't "overthrow all limits on majority power." We have a bicameral legislature, a slow-to-change judiciary, and a president with substantial powers.

    It is hard to look at the last Congress and conclude that some kind of rules reform in the Senate is not needed.

  4. Not likely to be abolished: As much as they'd like to get rid of the filibuster for the next two years, Democratic Senate leaders are well aware that they'll want it after 2012, and the odds of ever getting it back when Republicans take the Senate are pretty slim.

    "Filibuster reform" in the sense of making would be filibusters actually show up and talk, maybe.

    "Filibuster reform" in the sense of abolishing anonymous holds? Pretty good chance, I'd say.

  5. Timing is everything in politics.

    I wish I had some faith that the game of filibuster reform aims at something other than absolute Repubican power in 2013, and establishment of an authoritarian state.

    Brett thinks the Democratic Senate leaders are aware of being rolled. They had plenty of fair warning on how the filibuster was evolving. (Remember the Gang of 14?) They didn't have much foresight, then.

    I remember how the Republicans handled the Independent Prosecutor, stampeding the Democrats into dropping its renewal just before the country really needed one.

    Procedure is rarely anything more than a plausible cover story, for why you went along with policies you previously indicated that you opposed. See Obama, Barack for endless examples. The Democrats could have forced an effective change in Senate rules by invoking the constitutional option, as Cheney threatened to do. [And, no, that's not "cheating" — that's enforcing the Constitutional requirements for majority rule against the emergence of a unconstitutional super-majority requirement. It is also the means (i.e. a ruling by the President of the Senate) by which Senate rules, including the filibuster rule, have often been modified in the past.)]

    The game isn't being played to overturn "all limits on majority power" — this game is always, always played to overturn majority power entirely. The goal, for at least twenty-five years, has been to establish an unchallengeable plutocratic oligarchy. And, progress on accomplishing that goal is well-advanced, with conservative control of Media and the Judiciary, and a populace accepting all manner of authoritarian oppression, from high unemployment and falling wages to being electronically stripped naked in airports. We are advancing very rapidly toward a political economy of neo-feudalism, in which the ordinary individual labors in debt peonage, with no enforceable rights any large business corporation is bound to respect. The U.S. is sliding down hill, in a political and economic decline, in which functional democracy will not be allowed to survive without a fight. And, I don't see the Center or the Left being willing enough to fight, to even acknowledge the full reality of what is happening. The Center is cheerleading, in fact.

  6. "Brett thinks the Democratic Senate leaders are aware of being rolled."

    No, I think they're playing a longer game than people who want to get rid of minority power two years before becoming the minority.

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