Thursday, February 5, 2009

Koger on Filibusters

Greg Koger, author of an upcoming book on filibusters, offered an excellent explanation of filibuster politics in a comment, so I thought I'd reproduce that here as a full post:
There are two questions here: 1) why don't senators have to work to filibuster by killing floor time, Mr.-Smith-Goes-to-Washington style? And, 2) why do the Democrats treat this as business as usual?

As it happens, I have written an as-yet-unpublished manuscript on this very topic. The very short answer to question #1 is "because they can credibly threaten to last longer than the Democrats would be willing to wait." That is, since the late 1960s senators have generally conceded that any threat to kill floor time was valid. In this case, that means, "hey, if the GOP has 41 votes against the stimulus bill, they could probably field teams of floor speakers for weeks/months if we pressed them." The critical commodity in this equation is TIME. The majority party has other legislation to bring up which would be delayed by a prolonged floor fight. More than that, modern senators can't be bothered to actually, you know, be in the Senate. They are sitting in committee, holding fundraisers, sobering up, or traveling back and forth to their states (Biden, I'm lookin' at you). Floor fights are more demanding on the majority than the minority, so Democrats would find their days and nights completely disrupted.

That having been said, why don't the Democrats do more to shame the Republicans? After all, there are at least 5-10 moderate GOPers who will find it very hard to vote against a stimulus package (Collins & Snowe, I'm lookin' at you). There are three reasons, all based on the notion of party reputations. A) the Dems don't want to officially call an end to the era of bipartisanship. Sure, the GOP so far has been drinking the Dems' liquor and voting against 'em in the morning, but they haven't declared war yet. B) Declaring war (i.e. calling a cloture vote and then holding press conferences to blast the GOP when & if it fails) would solidify GOP can't count on the votes of GOP moderates after you call them heartless bastards. C) it's unlikely to work. For every hi-info convention-attending daily-blogging political scientist out there, there are a thousand voters who couldn't tell you who voted for what, or what the rules of the Senate are, or what's in the stimulus package. They just know that they want something done, and that the Dems are the majority party in Congress. If Obama and the Dems can't get something done, the blame falls on them. And any effort to say, "but the mean old Republicans keep voting against cloture!" will be met with "Whatever. You're in charge...get things done. Negotiate or compromise or whatever. All I know is that I'm out of a job and my unemployment benefits are running out. So shut up about 'Rule 22' and pass something." In particular, Obama has eschewed the "blame game" so even if the GOP deserves some, any effort to blame the GOP for inaction and walk away will appear duplicitous to the median voter.
I think the blame game could actually work, if Obama were truly willing to campaign against the "do-nothing Republican Congress," a la Harry Truman. But I'm not sure it's his style.

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