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Against The Filibuster

It's always good to disagree with those people you're always agreeing with. Plan A was to pick on this Plumer post but mostly I can't even understand what he's trying to say (though I agree that CAFTA is pretty lousy, another post on that later). Instead, Mark Schmitt gets to be my man. For background, you'd really better read Nathan Newman's post that turned me around. Then here's the key part of the Schmitt counterargument:

For that, I think I'll just refer back to something else I wrote last summer, an article on congressional reform that is mostly a review of a recent book by Julian Zelizer. (And which appeared in the American Prospect online, where Sam works, so this whole thing is circular) What I noted from the book was that procedural reform in the 1940s, 50s and 60s was built on the assumption that if the rules were different the results would change. Reducing the number of votes needed to end a filibuster from 66 to 60, breaking the "committee system" by which senile Southerners held total power over what was considered, and making votes public were expected to lead not only to passage of civil rights legislation, but to a much more activist, presidential government. Reformers assumed that they would help a strong president, who was likely to be liberal, set the congressional agenda.

I noted the irony that everything the reformers had dreamed of had now come true. The president can now set the congressional agenda. And yet, the result in practice is exactly the same: antigovernment Southern conservatives control the game, just as solidly under the new rules as under the old. The point is not that the reforms were mistaken or backfired. It's just the rule of thumb that any procedural reform is likely to have very different results depending on the political and cultural context. As political culture changes, the results become unpredictable. In this case, the big change that overwhelms everything was, as Kevin Drum noted earlier this week, the shift of Southern conservatives from a faction within the Democratic party to the base of the Republican Party.

This is really the key issue. Were the reformers of the 40s, 50s, and 60s right to think that greasing the wheels of legislative change would, on the whole, be good for liberalism? Now it's obvious that the actual predictions made my those reformers were basically wrong. They assumed that they could get both the Liberal Consensus and a more disciplined style of government and then quickly hop along the road to social democracy (note that this is what actually did happen during the relevant time frame in Canada, so it's not a totally crazy thing to have believed) and as it turns out they couldn't. Just as the reformers were triumphing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Consensus was unraveling and conservative Republicans quickly steamed into unprecedented levels of electoral power. I'm a firm opponent of good government, transparency, ethics, etc. so I would actually defend the view that some elements of reformism aimed at opening up the primary process, curbing machine power and petty corruption, etc., actually did contribute to the rise of conservatism. But -- and it's a big but -- I don't think you can plausibly argue that the legislative reforms, the stuff designed to make it easier to turn a bill into a law, contributed to the rise of conservatism. It just sort of came together coincedentally.

The question is whether the old reformist idea that discipline, majoritarianism, and easy passage of major laws is good for liberalism holds even if you don't assume the existence of perpetual liberal majorities. I think it does. Obviously, it doesn't hold if you assume that there will never be liberal majorities. There's a sort of bleak view where the situation from 2003-2005 typifies what American politics will look like forever and that Democrats need to prepare to transform themselves into a perpetual minority party aimed solely at obstruction. I reject that. The sun will come up tomorrow, and Democrats will be back in power, and power will alternate forever after.

What I think is important here is that there's a basic assymetry between liberal and conservative legislative initiatives. There are a couple of different ways to frame this assymetry depending on how generous to the right you want to be. The unkind characterization is that since liberals try to put good policy ideas on the table, once they're in place, people like them a lot, so they're very hard to get rid of. Kinder to conservatives would be the observation that big progressive measures (Social Security, Medicare, Civil Rights, etc.) create and empower large political coalitions to support them. Either way, the point I would make is that even during an era when liberals have been astoundingly bad at winning elections, it hasn't proven especially difficult to defend the key elements of the New Deal / Great Society settlement.

What has been hard is getting any new shit passed. Labor law reform, health care reform, etc. But if that stuff did get passed, it would be very hard to repeal it. Republicans no this perfectly well with regard to health care -- once universal coverage comes in, it's not going away short of a nuclear war. Robustly pro-union governance will create stronger unions which will make it very hard to mobilize anti-union politics in the future.

Conservative measures aren't like this. When Reagan was President, he rolled back a bunch of 1970s era environmental regulations. Then in the 1990s that all got re-rolled and some even tougher rules were put in. Bush II has partially rolled back the new rules of the 1990s. But next time a Democrat comes in, things will rapidly become better than they were at the end of the Clinton administration. Aside from the massive tax cuts (and wars, which aren't relevant to this discussion), Republicans do basically two things: There's this nickle-and-dime bullshit that just gets repealed when the Democrats come back in, and every once in a while they launch a self-destructive attack on retirement security. You can't actually filibuster the tax cuts, because of budget reconciliation rules, and you don't need the filibuster to deal with the entitlements. So what the filibuster lets you do, basically, is prevent the GOP from implementing relatively minor, grossly ill-conceived corporate giveaways that can be pretty easily repealed next time the wheels of power switch.

What the filibuster lets the GOP do, by contrast, is impede popular structural reforms of American social and economic life that, though controversial at the time (Social Security, Civil Rights) would, if implemented, rapidly become popular unrepealable measures. Ergo, ditch the filibuster.

Note that this is not strictly what's at issue in the "nuclear option" debate. Instead, the GOP wants to specifically end filibusters of judicial nominees. That's stupid, and there's no reason to give into it. But combining opposition to going nuclear with a counteroffer to end all filibusters would be smart.

April 7, 2005 | Permalink

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» The Filibuster Debate from bennellibrothers.com
I think in these liberal viewpoints on getting rid of the filibuster..they are doing it on the grounds of principal. Yes, the Republicans have used it to their advantage better then the Dems but to give up the Democrats ability to counter the judges t... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 7, 2005 12:31:05 PM

» Fighting the Filibuster from Political Animal
FIGHTING THE FILIBUSTER....Matt Yglesias makes a lengthy argument today that the filibuster is a bad thing and Democrats should support its elimination even if that causes some short term pain. I shot my wad on the filibuster question a couple... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 7, 2005 1:22:25 PM

» Fighting the Filibuster from Political Animal
FIGHTING THE FILIBUSTER....Matt Yglesias makes a lengthy argument today that the filibuster is a bad thing and Democrats should support its elimination even if that causes some short term pain. I shot my wad on the narrower question of judicial... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 7, 2005 1:29:43 PM

» Against the Filibuster (Again) from NathanNewman.org
Mark Schmitt has written an excellent response to my argument for why progressives should welcome the end of the Senate... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 7, 2005 2:53:41 PM

» The Filibuster, Conservatism, and Liberals from Thoughts from Kansas
The Senate's undemocratic basis can be traced back to Aristotle's notion of aristocracy as the form of government most likely to govern well. He felt that a benevolent monarch might govern best, but posed too great a danger of dictatorship; democracy... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 7, 2005 5:06:49 PM

» If it ain't fili-busted, don't fili-fix it. from Burnt Orange Report
There seems to be some dissent in the blogosphere about Democrats vowing mutually-assured destruction as the Republicans mull going "nuclear" on the filibuster. Some ask, is the filibuster even worth fighting for? The fili-doves includes Matt Yglesias ... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 7, 2005 9:00:49 PM

» End the Fillibuster? from Lean Left
Both Matthew Yglesias and Nathan Newman have reasonable arguments against the filibuster. The gist of their arguments is simple: the filibuster is anti-democratic in nature, and that progressives benefit from an easier ability to pass laws than conser... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 7, 2005 9:49:33 PM

» Filibuster...please? from Get Your Blog Up
The first, and in my mind most important question I'd like to ask of Matt Yglesias and Nathan Newman is what impact they think the lack of filibuster would have on the current Social Security debate. [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 8, 2005 9:44:43 AM

» Filibuster... fine get rid of it from Craig's Thoughts, Theories, and Tantrums
Matt makes a good point that the filibuster in general is used by the conservatives in a much more dangerous fashion due to the sorts of laws the different parties attempt to legislate. Liberals use it to prevent the GOP... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 8, 2005 2:05:04 PM

» Filibusters are Bad! No, Good! from The Debate Link
The Family Research Council might want to make up its mind. What's my position, you say? Well, I'm moderately swayed by the Mickey Kaus/Rick Hertzberg school of thought: filibusters are only okay for judicial nominations, not just any old bill. Af... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 13, 2005 8:48:51 PM

» Confirmation Injustice - Taking Senate Filibuster Arguments From The Other Side - Including Nazi Germany from WurfWhile
I have kept a little distance from the judicial confirmation filibuster issue because I have mixed feelings about the merits of the argument on principle, although this is clearly a power grab by the GOP Senate and George W. Bush's... [Read More]

Tracked on May 20, 2005 10:43:13 PM

Comments

I'm a firm opponent of good government, transparency, ethics, etc.

Showing your true colors, Matt?

Posted by: SamR | Apr 7, 2005 11:16:20 AM

I'm a firm opponent of good government, transparency, ethics, etc.

Depending on how charitable one wanted to be to Matt....

Posted by: Publius Rex | Apr 7, 2005 11:28:22 AM

No, showing his common sense.

In general, this is one of the most convincing and best argued piece on filibusters I've seen on the web. Obviously the fruits of Matt's conversion to Marxism....

Posted by: lemuel pitkin | Apr 7, 2005 11:28:24 AM

But combining opposition to going nuclear with a counteroffer to end all filibusters would be smart.

I've written this before, but my objection to the Republican tactic is that the Democrat counteroffer is unnecessary. When Democrats regain the Senate - and Matthew is right to focus on the effect of the nuclear option when this actually happens - the Democrats can simply do exactly what the GOP is doing now: raise a point of order that filibusters are to be eliminated, and if the GOP object, uphold the ruling from the chair agreeing. Hence, Democrats can eliminate the filibuster without having to make the "counteroffer" Matthew describes; all they have to do when the time comes is, as Nike says, "just do it".

Which is why it is folly for the Republicans to now use go only halfway and retain the filibuster for ordinary legislation (which only benefits the Democrats). They ought to go the whole way and eliminate filibusters altogether, or back down and say that it is wrong to unilaterally change the rules like this.

Posted by: Al | Apr 7, 2005 11:30:11 AM

Aren't you forgetting about the judiciary Matt? That can fuck us up for decades.

Posted by: patrick | Apr 7, 2005 11:38:04 AM

The only outlier from your analysis is the federal-judgeship problem you barely mention at the end. Appointments of judges are probably the only things that are nearly impossible to roll back when Democrats next come to power, and I'm sure you'll note that the filibuster option is used extensively in confirmation hearings, probably for just that reason.

Posted by: esjewett | Apr 7, 2005 11:38:19 AM

Much more thought should be given to the "asymetry" between Repub & Dem governance and political maneuver. R's are willing to use policy initiatives of dubious ideological value to pursue their overriding strategic vision. D's, on the other hand, are so constrained by their strategic goals (by a self censoring sense of virtuous fair play??) that they are forever stuck on the tactical defensive. If Dems can better recognize that they're in an apples vs oranges political universe--either as a minority or majority party--they can then use their political options more effectively.

Posted by: RPR | Apr 7, 2005 11:43:15 AM

There's a sort of bleak view where the situation from 2003-2005 typifies what American politics will look like forever and that Democrats need to prepare to transform themselves into a perpetual minority party aimed solely at obstruction. I reject that. The sun will come up tomorrow, and Democrats will be back in power, and power will alternate forever after.

I wonder what Allende and Pinochet would think about this don't worry be happy attitude?

But regardless, giving up the filibuster voluntarily while out of power would be a surrender of epic proportions, a surrender that the base would not accept. Once you lose a vibrant base, you don't get the alternating power cycle that you are taking for granted. The Republican base will be fired up as hell, and our base will be flat-lined. Who's going to spread the Democratic talking points to their friends, who's going to tell their friends to go vote, who's going to give to the retreatists, and who's going to work on the campaigns? The activity of the base is more important than you give it credit for. The reliance on this idea may make it false.

Especially when their is scant majoritarian consequences for filibusters. If the judicial filibuster comes to head, the idea that the most outlandish 5% of Bush's nominees are being filibustered will sway the public. Right now the polls show that it is a loser, but as education and saliency increase, so will the polls.

I think the "counter-offer" is worse than the status quo. It pretty much says "don't bulldoze my porch unless you're gonna level the whole house." How is that even defensible in the public forum, where you cant rely on nuanced tactical considerations?

Posted by: scott lewis | Apr 7, 2005 11:54:27 AM

There's a sort of bleak view where the situation from 2003-2005 typifies what American politics will look like forever and that Democrats need to prepare to transform themselves into a perpetual minority party aimed solely at obstruction. I reject that. The sun will come up tomorrow, and Democrats will be back in power, and power will alternate forever after.

I wonder what Allende and Pinochet would think about this don't worry be happy attitude?

But regardless, giving up the filibuster voluntarily while out of power would be a surrender of epic proportions, a surrender that the base would not accept. Once you lose a vibrant base, you don't get the alternating power cycle that you are taking for granted. The Republican base will be fired up as hell, and our base will be flat-lined. Who's going to spread the Democratic talking points to their friends, who's going to tell their friends to go vote, who's going to give to the retreatists, and who's going to work on the campaigns? The activity of the base is more important than you give it credit for. The reliance on this idea may make it false.

Especially when their is scant majoritarian consequences for filibusters. If the judicial filibuster comes to head, the idea that the most outlandish 5% of Bush's nominees are being filibustered will sway the public. Right now the polls show that it is a loser, but as education and saliency increase, so will the polls.

I think the "counter-offer" is worse than the status quo. It pretty much says "don't bulldoze my porch unless you're gonna level the whole house." How is that even defensible in the public forum, where you cant rely on nuanced tactical considerations?

Posted by: scott lewis | Apr 7, 2005 11:54:29 AM

I'd like to draw everybody's attention to Al's comment, above. It employs logic and he's not insulting anyone. Well posted, Al.

Posted by: LowLife | Apr 7, 2005 11:59:01 AM

The Nathan Newman link actually points to Mark Schmitt.

Posted by: digamma | Apr 7, 2005 12:21:50 PM

"Aren't you forgetting about the judiciary Matt? That can fuck us up for decades."

Well-off white males can afford to ignore the judiciary.

Posted by: MattB | Apr 7, 2005 12:29:23 PM

Newman,Schmitt,MY make this case very well. I know Schmitt argues against, but his argument based on principle carries no weight, for I am now a committed Yglesian without principle.

"There's a sort of bleak view where the situation from 2003-2005 typifies what American politics will look like forever and that Democrats need to prepare to transform themselves into a perpetual minority party aimed solely at obstruction."

Well, you know I think there is some kind of empirical pragmatic argument here. My point is not that conservatism has triumphed forever, but that Democrats have been trying for thirty years to counter radicalism with moderation and getting their butts kicked. And in the process ending up with center-right Democrats who vote for bankruptcy bills. Now I realize that whether the net movement has been to left or to the right is complicated, but it has not been left enough for me. And strategies and tactics of opposition are also arguable.

But whether majority or minority opposition, opposition to Republicans and conservatism is what Democrats need to be.

2) Especially since externalities such as oil, China, the deficit may soon determine the situation more than internal policy positions. If we are approaching a tipping point or revolutionary period, Democrats as opposition need to be very clearly defined.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 7, 2005 12:43:57 PM

Since a major design role for the Senate is to give 'mature' consideration of legislation (and appointments) so that majorities in the 'immature' House don't rush through ill-thought-out laws, it makes sense to have rules in the Senate to 'slow down' legislation.

With this perspective, even higher majorities of the Senate should be required for some kinds of Senate activity to ensure greater bi-partisanship and consensus. Going back to 66 votes (instead of the current 60) for judicial nominations - and perhaps some other kinds of laws - would make for better consideration and consensus. Both parties over time would be limited to the good and bad things they might want to rush through.

The unlimited debate issue is just a subset of the larger problem of ensuring adequate time and talk for legislation. I might be willing to limit debate on certain kinds of actions (but not the judicial nominations because of their long-lasting effect) if we moved back to a 66 vote requirement to proceed to a final vote.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 7, 2005 12:56:24 PM

But the House, too, started out with filibusters in the beginning. The real difference between House and Senate, was supposed to be that the House represented the citizenry, while the Senate represented the state governments. When we trashed that idea with the 17th amendment, the Senate became nothing but a redundancy, another House with larger districts, and longer terms.

And a BIG ego problem, of course. ;)

By the way, "The unlimited debate issue" might be a bit more defensible, if the time afforded by a filibuster was actually being USED to debate the nominee, instead of just to prevent a vote from being taken after everybody has already presented their case.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Apr 7, 2005 1:02:52 PM

By the way, "The unlimited debate issue" might be a bit more defensible, if the time afforded by a filibuster was actually being USED to debate the nominee, instead of just to prevent a vote from being taken after everybody has already presented their case.

Meaningful debate rarely takes place in the chamber; it takes place outside of the chamber (and often in the media), and it certainly takes place during the delays created by the use of the filibuster.

Of course, the meaningful debates are probably only rarely more than tangentially concerned with the personal qualifications of the nominee, but that's a side issue.

Posted by: cmdicely | Apr 7, 2005 1:12:28 PM

I'm a firm opponent of good government, transparency, ethics, etc.


Hmm. I think this a perfect illustration of why we shouldn't sneer at "sneer quotes". Because I'm pretty sure this doesn't mean what it looks like it means without them, but means something closer to what it would seem to mean with them, like:

I'm a firm opponent of "good government", "transparency", "ethics", etc.

But, even so, it would be somewhat helpful to elaborate more on what specifically you are opposed to. OTOH, I suppose its not entirely inconceivable that you support bad government, opacity, and the complete absence of ethics.

Posted by: cmdicely | Apr 7, 2005 1:19:09 PM

The question is whether the old reformist idea that discipline, majoritarianism, and easy passage of major laws is good for liberalism holds even if you don't assume the existence of perpetual liberal majorities. I think it does.

OTOH, some of us think that an opaque, self-serving tyranny of the majority is bad even if the majority is perpetually of the same broad faction as we are.

Posted by: cmdicely | Apr 7, 2005 1:21:29 PM

Yes, I too would like an exegesis of the following sentence:

I'm a firm opponent of good government, transparency, ethics, etc. so I would actually defend the view that some elements of reformism aimed at opening up the primary process, curbing machine power and petty corruption, etc., actually did contribute to the rise of conservatism.

Posted by: Abby (who wishes she had a cool blog posting name) | Apr 7, 2005 1:38:22 PM

Who needs the Senate anyway? Or the House, for that matter. We're in the middle of a war, remember? Now is not the time for endless discussions and meaningless grandstanding. The Supreme Commander issues an order, The Supreme Court confirms constitutionality of it - sounds good enough to me.

Just my 2 cents.

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 7, 2005 1:39:23 PM

So few Americans have any idea what democracy is and how it works. Many, like this lot from Texas, see it as a means to wield power, others insist it means they get their way. Few appreciate the elegance of the model. Fewer still seem able to understand the complexity. Sometimes it is best to slow the pace, to demand overwhelming evidence.

Posted by: ken melvin | Apr 7, 2005 1:53:26 PM

I'm not sure there's a major disagreement here (we'll have the Battle of the Bands another day) and this is a really interesting expansion on Nathan Newman's strong argument.

I assume your not criticizing me when you say "I don't think you can plausibly argue that the legislative reforms contributed to the rise of conservatism." I agree with you that it is coincidence, but that you have to be aware that legislative reforms are small interventions whose results are affected by big changes.

My only amendments would be that I don't think things will rapidly get better after a Democrat is elected, if only because recovering the ground lost to the tax cuts will be an enormous process.

And, second, it should go without saying, there is a third thing that Republican presidents do, and that is appoint judges. If eight years of Republican rule results in the SC and several of the circuits being loaded with people who think Lochner was correctly decided, the burdens a Democratic president will face will be every bit as great as those FDR faced before 1937.

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | Apr 7, 2005 2:18:08 PM

Mark- Once the filibuster goes down, appointing a bunch of conservative judges becomes less threatening, since "packing the courts" becomes much easier. Remember, FDR only ran into problems in packing the courts in the 1930s because southern conservative Democrats were going to filibuster his court packing plan.

Judicial power and Senate filibusters actually feed on each other, so eliminating the filibuster actually lowers the stakes on judicial fights tremendously.

Posted by: Nathan Newman | Apr 7, 2005 2:59:58 PM

I don't know, MY's argument seems to look at conservatives in a small government light. A very 80s thing to do. The current crop is very intereseted in enacting legislation. The bankruptcy bill, tort reform, privatizing social security, renewal of the patriot act, the list keeps growing. Do we really want to open the floodgates to new Rapture Right shit?

This also ignores a point Mark Schmitt brought up about the way the house tries to pass bills with the slimmest majority possible, believing that getting any more than that means they gave up to much. This situation in the house means that the bills getting to conference committee are already as republican on one side. Without the threat of a filibuster expect similiar results in the senate.

Posted by: Zach | Apr 7, 2005 3:31:02 PM

I was reading opponent as a typo for proponent, I don't know if that's right or of if cmdicely's absent scare quote theory is correct. I also second Zach's point that this more clearly applies to small government conservatism than the big government Republicanism.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Apr 7, 2005 4:56:45 PM

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