Legislative Politics

Public Opinion about the Filibuster During the Health Care Reform Debate

Jun 13 '11

bq. Striking the balance between majority rule and minority rights is a central issue in the design of political institutions. Here, we are concerned with public attitudes about majority rule, minority rights, and the Senate filibuster. Using a panel design in which the attitudes of a representative sample of individuals was measured in two contexts–before and after a major obstructionist episode in the Senate – we find that public attitudes about the Senate filibuster crystallized during the episode in a way that reflects the short-­‐term policy and partisan advantages of the cloture rule, as well as with general attitudes about majority rule and minority rights. Attitudes about the filibuster also have an independent effect on attitudes about the parties. In general, we conclude that citizens have meaningful attitudes toward procedures such as the filibuster, and that, under at least some conditions, these attitudes influence political assessments of the political parties.

That is from a new paper by Steven Smith, James Gibson, and Hong Min Park.  The “major obstructionist episode” is the debate over health care reform, obviously.  Respondents were interviewed in August 2009 and January 2010.  Here’s one tidbit:

bq. The percentage of Republicans supporting the filibuster in the first interview was 58.5%; this number climbed to 75.3% at the time of the second interview. For Democrats, the two percentages are 45.1% and 46.9%, respectively.

Here’s another interesting tidbit: among Republicans and Democrats, this increasing support for the filibuster was tied to support for majoritarianism.  And, no, that’s not backwards.  Republicans who believed in majoritarianism became more supportive of the filibuster.  Why? Smith, Gibson, and Park offer this possibility:

bq. In 2009, those favoring majoritarianism felt that the filibuster was a tool for protecting the interests of the minority, not themselves. But over the course of the healthcare debate, something changed. That change may have been the result of successful elite framing of the filibuster debate, recasting the procedure as a tool for protecting the rights of the majority from “out-­of‐control” Democrats. The Democrats, the majority party in Congress, were painted as advancing interests contrary to the views of the popular majority. Since people typically view themselves as being in the majority (the so­‐called “false consensus effect”), policy actions in the Senate of which they disapproved were persuasively portrayed as a scheme of a legislative minority.

Here’s one interpretation they give of their results:

bq. While no serious scholar of political science would assert that procedural attitudes dominate substantive policy preferences, our analysis suggests that citizen evaluations of procedures are relevant for politics. Something went wrong for the Democrats on the healthcare issue – they did not receive the credit for reform that they expected – and it seems possible to us that some of the explanation for the credit deficit has to do with the procedures of lawmaking.

I’ve been dubious that procedures or process mattered, but perhaps I am wrong.  Perhaps arguments about procedure were important reasons why opinion about health care became so polarized along party lines.