Filibustering and Partisanship in the Senate

by Gregory Koger on March 2, 2012 · 4 comments

in Legislative Politics,Senate procedure

Wednesday, Ezra Klein suggested that the filibuster “promotes partisanship.” How? Currently the filibuster enables the minority party to block legislative initiatives—even those they have supported in the recent past—to deny the majority party the political benefits of legislative success. Take away (or diminish, or restrict) the right to filibuster, and (some) minority party members will negotiate for policy compromises rather than simply oppose legislation that is certain to pass.

Let us state this claim as preference orderings.  So let’s assume there are some moderates within the minority party, or “squishes”, and diehard partisans, aka “zealots.” And there might even be a few “country first” statesmen.

Statesman: compromise > block > symbolic opposition

Squish:  block > compromise > symbolic opposition

Zealot: block > symbolic opposition > compromise

So, if one is frustrated by the blocking strategy of the minority party, one can pine for enough dealmaking statesmen (and stateswomen) to invoke cloture, but they are mostly gone and fast disappearing. Second-best, Ezra suggests, is to unleash the squishes by taking away the blocking strategy. Then the squishes and the majority party can make grand bargains and the Senate will work again.

What’s missing from this story?  The majority party. As Matt Glassman points out, we already have a chamber of Congress in which compromise and bipartisanship thrive without filibustering to get in the way. It’s the U.S. House, and it’s a war zone. Over the last three decades, the majority party in the House (under both Republicans and Democrats) has grown increasingly draconian in its tolerance of amendments and debate. Major legislation routinely passes with a few hours of debate and a single vote—if any—on an attempt to amend the bill. There is plenty of bargaining, but it occurs within the majority party; by the time a bill reaches the floor, the members of the minority party—statesmen, squishes, and zealots alike—face a simple choice whether to endorse the majority’s proposal or not. And, excluded from the deliberations that produced the bill, the answer is typically “not”, just on principle.

{ 4 comments }

Pat March 3, 2012 at 12:48 am

So parts of Ezra’s argument may be flawed. But I found this point really compelling:

“The question isn’t whether the majority party should be able to work its will all of the time, as is true in, say, the British system. It’s whether the majority party should be able to work its will during the few times when the public has decisively put it in charge of the government.” As Ezra notes, unified control is relatively rare — in the last thirty years, there have only been eight years of unified control.

Can any Monkey Cage writers or readers suggest some of the best essays on the benefits vs. disadvantages of the filibuster?

Also, it’s always interesting to speculate about the future of the filibuster. I know Nolan McCarty has argued that Senate moderates are the most ardent supporters of the filibuster, because it grants them huge leverage and influence in the legislative process. But if moderates are disappearing (alla Olympia Snowe), does that mean we’re more likely to ditch the filibuster sometime soon?

ZC March 3, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Though there’s also an interaction between the current setup, in the two chambers. The presence of the filibuster in the Senate makes life easy for the zealots in the House – they can vote for anything, throw red meat to their partisan base, and rely on the Senate filibuster to kill anything that, if made law, might perturb the independents within their House districts. Think of something like the dynamic in the Clinton impeachment. If there had really been a risk of Clinton being removed from office, many House Repubs would not have voted for the impeachment. Without a Senate filibuster, in other words, some House Repubs or Dems might be more prone to compromise – “holy cow, if I vote for this it might actually pass, and then my overall constituency is going to pay attention!”

oldguy45 March 4, 2012 at 2:44 pm

There is something especailly odouis about modern “filibisters. All a minority party has to do is submit a list of 41 or more names of those opposing a bill. The majority party is then forced to shunt it aside. I don’t know when this idiotic pracatice started. In years past, if someone wanted to shut down debate, he/she had to physically appear before the Senate and actually filibuster the bill. Yes, they had to get up and speak against the bill(s). Only when he/she yielded the floor could a cloture motion be proposed. If cloture failed, then another filibusterer had to physically get up and speak before the Saenate. I wonder why that practicve was abandoned. Why it hasn’t been reinststed is a mystery to me.

Steve Smith March 5, 2012 at 1:11 am

For the most part, I think that Greg is right to question the “filibusters produce partisanship” formulation. Members of polarized parties demand that their leaders exploit their procedural weapons. When leaders do so, partisan animosities are heightened and the procedural weapons are exploited more frequently and with greater vigor. It happens in both houses. (Minority parties in both houses initiate this process, but this is not the place for the details.) In both houses, partisan anger about procedural gamesmanship is real, but it adds only marginally to the underlying polarization of the parties.

Nevertheless, I think it is reasonable to argue that a pattern of “unfairness” or “abuse of procedure” on the part of a party tends to persuade some (moderate) members of the other party to go along with stronger counter-measures. It also may lead some moderates to become more fatalistic about efforts to put together bipartisan coalitions. Again, this is not a uniquely Senate story. (Snowe, in fact, is a likely case in both her House and Senate experiences. Recall her support for Gingrich in the 1989 whip race.)

Back to Ezra: There are other good reasons to advocate filibuster reform.

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