Sunday, November 15, 2009

Should Dems let the GOP filibuster?

The Klugies had a big day on the blogosphere last Friday. My post on midterm elections got picked up by Matthew Yglesias and Derek Thompson at the Atlantic. More impressively, Greg Koger got interviewed by Ezra Klein about filibusters. Greg addresses the perennial question asked by modern opponents of the filibuster: Why not just have them? That is, let's break out the cots and force Republicans to actually speak for weeks on end, so the public can see them just obstructing progress. Greg notes that this is actually very costly for the majority party, probably costlier than it used to be:
They have other things to do. The modern Senate has more staff, deals with more interest groups. There's more legislation. More appropriations. The modern senator spends 1 percent of his or her time on the Senate floor. They have to take pictures with constituents. They have to fundraise and meet with constituency groups and lobbyists and deal with staff. To actually have a live filibuster would mean they have to give up all the other business.

And as individuals, they have other things to do. Air travel has opened up. In 2009, if you are the senator from Montana, it's perfectly reasonable for you to go home on the weekend and campaign for reelection. That wasn't possible in 1940. You came to Washington to do your work and you stayed until it was done. Now air travel has made it possible for you to fly away for the weekend. That makes your time more valuable.

Jonathan Bernstein adds an additional wrinkle, the modern media:

In the old days, Senators engaged in a filibuster would read recipes or otherwise stray off topic. No need for that now! Not only do Senators have large staffs who could produce content, but there's a whole big internet available. If I were advising the GOP in that situation, I'd tell them to let conservative bloggers know that they can have their big chance for immortality: post something good, and a Republican Senator will read it on the floor of the Senate. Doesn't even have to be about health care! Excellent way to rev up the conservative blogosphere, no? Meanwhile, by forcing Republicans to perform a "real" filibuster, Democrats would transform a 24 hour network that millions of Americans get in their homes into a 24 hour Republican propaganda outlet. How is that possibly good for the Democrats? Granted, CNN coverage of the Big Filibuster would invite comments from both sides, but even CNN would probably go to the Senate floor once in a while, and each time it would be a Republican talking.


Robert said...

Aren't Greg Koger's comments about how inconvenient a filibuster would be to the majority party equally applicable to the minority party? And, since the minority party is the one actually conducting the filibuster, aren't the costs borne more by the members of that party, e.g., "Sorry, staff, but I won't be able to make it to the fabulous fundraising party you have planned. I'll have to forego raking in a million dollars tonight in New York because I have to read the phone book on the floor. Again." In fact, how are these costs borne by the majority party? Can't the Dems just go to their fundraisers if they want and leave the Repubs in Washington?

Seth Masket said...

Actually, no. As Greg points out, it only takes one Republican to mount a filibuster. If that Republican calls for quorum, then at least 50 Democrats have to stay in the chamber. If just a handful of Republicans agree to rotate through control of the floor, they can hold it as long as they want, and they can force Democrats to keep showing up.

This is costlier to the majority because the majority actually has an agenda it wants to pass. The minority wasn't going to get anything passed anyway, so it's no major loss for them to grind the Senate to a halt. This is particularly acute now, with unified Democratic control. The House is pushing through legislation and Obama is prepared to sign it, but if the Senate does nothing, it screws the whole party.

Gregory Koger said...

I agree with Jon Bernstein--a classic effort to wear out the GOP senators would amount to a week of propaganda against the bill. And completely ineffective.

But in my interview with Ezra Klein I also(somewhat inarticulately) make the case that the Democrats could gain POLITICALLY in a protracted floor fight.

1) get the bill on the floor of the Senate. This is tricky, since the GOP can normally filibuster the motion to bring up the bill. But the Dems can either a) vote en bloc for cloture on the motion to bring up health care (not impossible--moderates vote with their party on procedural matters in the House all the time) or b) exercise a little-used clause in Senate Rule 8(2): "All motions made during the first two hours of a new legislative day to proceed to the consideration of any matter shall be determined without debate"
2) Once the bill is on the floor, insist that senators either speak or vote at all times.
3) As with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the majority can and should respond to the floor speeches of the opponents of the bill. Jon B. is right that some GOP senators would love to speak against this bill so they can blast it as unconstitutional big government nanny-stating/death-paneling. But the Senate floor is a great place to meet such rhetoric with the reality of the current health care crisis and the actual provisions of the Democrats' bill. Democratic responses could create some moments of real confrontation for the media to cover.
4) Once the debate begins, the Democrats have two trump cards. a) Democrats can point out that each day of delay has real consequences for real people: "Yesterday, while we debated without progress, X people were denied insurance coverage, Y people were excised, Z people died without adequate insurance..." etc. Of course, it's pretty Gingrichish to accuse the opposition of killing people by making speeches, but if the Republicans will never vote for any Democratic bill, the opportunity cost of burning bridges goes down. b) Tis The Season. The Dems can't make the GOP vote or stop speaking, but they do set the schedule of the Senate. If (as the Dems did in 1913) Reid announces that the Senate will debate this bill six days a week--breaking only for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day--until it passes, senators may actually begin to feel the sense of urgency they should have felt last spring... because their own personal lives will actually be touched by the unwillingness of the Senate to debate and vote on major legislation.

Jonathan Bernstein said...


Isn't that generally an argument for lots of floor debate, but not for a "live" filibuster?

That is, if the GOP won't allow a final vote and the Dems don't have the votes for cloture, I can see the argument for just keeping the Senate in session indefinitely, but not for forcing the GOP to talk-or-vote.

As far as the political outcome...I don't know. I don't think the "they died because you won't vote" argument is the trump card you make it out to be; the GOP would presumably respond that those people died because the Dems are unwilling to compromise, and it's not clear who swing voters would believe. I know what people who watch FNC and listen to Rush would believe, though, and that includes some swing voters. For the rest, I don't think it's obvious which way the David Gergens and Broders of the world swing on it...but remember, the idea is that at least Snowe, Collins, and either Lieberman or Nelson or both are with the GOP, and those guys love Snowe, Holy Joe, and the Benator.

Moreover, I'm really not convinced that the weakest couple of votes as Christmas approaches are on the GOP side. Go to the floor with 58 votes, and I think it's as likely that you lose Dems as it is that you can swing over the last couple of votes.

I think Reid is far better off finding a deal that gets 60 before going to the floor.

Jonathan Bernstein said...

Greg and Seth,

I would like to get your opinions on one thing. I've been saying that it's a real mistake for the GOP to force a cloture vote on the motion to proceed. I think that the case for Lincoln and Nelson(s) to vote for cloture on the motion to proceed is pretty strong (can they really go on CNN and argue for not even bringing the bill to the floor?). But once they've taken one tough cloture vote, then it may turn out to be safer to vote for than against final cloture. Meanwhile, I'm not sure what the GOP gets for insisting on the first cloture vote, if they're at least as likely to lose that one. Any thoughts on that?