Filibusters

FILIBUSTERS…. There’s been some great discussion around the ‘sphere the past few days about filibusters, and I wanted to jump in.

Josh Marshall got the ball rolling on Friday, noting in response to suggestions that Democrats should pull their own nuclear option, that’s it’s “just bad practice” for “numerical majorities not only to use the power of their numbers in straight up votes but to change the rules of the game itself.” He added, however, that the “filibuster has been increasingly abused.”

Matt Yglesias responded that the filibuster should be eliminated altogether, insisting that there’s “no compelling reason to add a supermajority requirement to Senate votes.” He added a key point that caught my eye:

What’s more, as Robert Farley observes the argument from tradition doesn’t really hold up. Traditional practice was for the filibuster to be broken out rarely as an extraordinary tactic. But over the past fifteen years or so, for some reason or another (perhaps related to the increased ideological coherence of the parties), it’s become more-and-more common so that we now speak of a 60-vote threshold as the ordinary hurdle for legislation to pass. Perhaps one can mount a defense of this de facto supermajority requirement on the merits, but it should be understood that routine filibustering is a very recent innovation and that eliminating the filibuster would leave us closer to our traditional practices.

I think that’s largely right. In fact, Nate Silver posted a very helpful chart noting the recent trend in cloture votes, highlighting the fact that filibusters over the last two years (the span of the 110th Congress) is nearly triple the rate of the previous nine Congresses. It has become, to borrow Matt’s description, both ordinary and routine.

But let’s also consider how we’ve reached this point and why Senate Republicans obliterated previous records for obstructionism.

There are a variety of angles here — including the general disappearance of GOP moderates — but let’s keep in mind that the ability to block bills that lack 60 votes isn’t new. For decades, though, Senate minority caucuses were reluctant to simply filibuster everything of significance because they were afraid of destroying chamber comity, and more importantly, they feared a public backlash.

With that in mind, two factors contributed to Republicans’ record-breaking obstructionism. First, the party gambled that voters wouldn’t know or even understand their tactics. This was largely right — most Americans have no idea what a filibuster or a cloture vote is, and the media, by and large, reports after a failed cloture vote that a bill “came up short in the Senate,” not that a bill “was blocked from an up-or-down vote by Republican obstructionism.” Senate caucuses in the past weren’t willing to take this chance by abusing what was an extreme tactic, but this Republican caucus gambled on cynicism and was largely right.

Second, Senate Republicans could have just let Bush veto these same bills — Democrats weren’t even close to being able to override — but his allies sought to protect him for the past two years. Filibusters are procedural minutiae, but vetoes are higher profile. Republicans decided early on that to protect the president from having to reject popular legislation, they’d block every bill of consequence that moved.

Now that the GOP has lost the White House, too, it’s likely the party’s tactics will get even more aggressive, until and unless the party faces political consequences from outraged voters.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.