There’s nothing normal about it

THERE’S NOTHING NORMAL ABOUT IT…. Washington Post political reporter Perry Bacon, Jr., chatted with readers about a variety of issues today, but one exchange in particular stood out for me.

A reader asked a good question that often goes overlooked: “The filibuster is out of control. Why should 40 Republicans get to veto what the majority wants? Do you think we’ll ever get filibuster reform? It wasn’t always like this — filibusters used to be rare.”

Bacon’s response, in its entirety, read: “The Democrats filibustered lots and lots of things from 2003 to 2007.” That was it, the whole response to a highly pertinent question. Nothing about the reform-minded inquiry; nothing about the relevant history.

Now, I’m not necessarily trying to pick on Bacon here. In fact, I suspect many political reporters work under the same assumptions — Dems filibustered when the GOP was in the majority, the GOP filibusters when the Dems are in the majority. It’s all perfectly routine. “Everyone” knows that nothing passes the Senate without 60 votes, so there’s no point in even answering a legitimate question about the filibuster being “out of control” in any kind of detail.

Except, these assumptions are wrong. Perhaps now’s a good time to republish this chart from Norm Ornstein.

filibusterchart.jpg

If you’re having trouble making out the years, note that as recently as the 1960s, filibusters were rare (and as it turns out, largely inconsequential). The number spiked in the last two years of Clinton’s presidency, and then spiked again after Democrats won back Congress in 2006. The chart doesn’t include the current Congress, but we know all too well that the tactic is now an assumed hurdle for practically every bill and nominee.

Is Bacon right that Democrats “filibustered lots and lots of things from 2003 to 2007”? It depends, I suppose, on how one defines “lots and lots” — the differences between those Democratic minorities and the current GOP minority are quantitative and qualitative, and it’s irresponsible to argue that the two are comparable, or worse, identical.

Senate Republican broke a record in the last Congress — and that was with a veto backstop at the White House — and there’s every reason to believe Republicans’ obstructionist tactics will break the record again in the 111th Congress that ends next year.

There’s nothing routine about this distortion of institutional constraints. It’s an abuse unseen in American history.