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Why The Democrats Should Unilaterally Disarm And Kill The Filibuster

Memo Pad Politics

Why The Democrats Should Unilaterally Disarm And Kill The Filibuster


By Joshua Spivak, McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

Following a frustrating two years topped off with their crushing losses on Election Day, Senate Democrats should start looking for creative solutions to improve their chances in 2016 and beyond. There has been chatter about replacing Harry Reid as leader, but even that step is not a game changer. Instead, the Democrats should take the one bold move that shows they care more about governing then politics, the move that could help reverse the current slide of Congress into partisan irrelevance and eventually help the Democrats accomplish some of their legislative goals whenever they eventually regain the majority: Kill the Filibuster.

This move may seem to be counterintuitive, as the filibuster is currently being credited for the Republicans’ recent climb back to power. This belief in the filibuster’s power only holds if you ignore the mountain of historical evidence that shows that the president’s party almost always seems to suffer in an off-year election. 2014 may have been a Republican tidal wave, but there’s little reason to think that the filibuster was anything but a minor cause.

That’s not to say that the filibuster hasn’t played a real and detrimental role in politics. What has happened is that as the Senate has gotten more partisan, the filibuster has become the rock that the minority party can use to gain some measure of influence on the political process. It also has the added benefit of driving the majority party crazy. It is not like the filibuster was ignored before, but it has now become the de facto weapon of choice for the minority.

The result is a continual cycle that starts up whenever the Senate changes hands. The two parties are constantly jockeying for political position. The majority claims the use of the filibuster is ahistorical and illegitimate and needs to be reined in. The minority immediately starts shouting about tyranny. On the political level, the minority seems to win this battle, as it both succeeds in delaying the Senate from taking substantive action and, no matter who is right, presents the majority party as vindictive and obsessed with technicalities. The success is why the filibuster is a hard habit to break.

But now is exactly the time to disarm the filibuster. It is easy to promote the change when your party is in the majority and the change will help you. The time to move against the filibuster is when it hurts you, and when you can show you are making a sacrifice for the future. In some ways, it would actually be a gutsy vote. There’s no political gain — the voters who actually decide general elections most likely don’t care that much about legislative procedure. Instead, the minority party will also lose some of the ability to force the majority to take embarrassing votes that could be used against sitting Senators in future ads. The senators would also be taking an intraparty risk — the voters who actually care about deeply procedure are exactly the type to run primary campaigns against members of their party for letting the opposition off the hook with a filibuster reform.

But the principle holds on multiple levels. For one, the Democrats can call the Republicans’ bluff — you won the majority, you got the power, you rule. Let’s see how you do. But the bigger point is the long term gain. If the Democrats can force through a filibuster removal that hurts them in the near term — not just a patchwork reform, but a full change in the rules — they would be able to set the precedent for future Congresses and allow either themselves or their successors the power to actually use the Senate to pass meaningful laws whenever they get back the throne.

What makes this change a no-brainer is that the Democrats wouldn’t be risking all that much. With the Republicans in control of the House, the Democrats weren’t passing any substantive laws in the first place. The filibuster would be used to on the margins, not the big pieces of new laws. Furthermore, the big fights may just be on presidential nominations, a place where the filibuster is of limited use if you actually want the nomination to go through. Even more importantly, for the next two years, the party has something much more valuable than a filibuster — it has a presidential veto pen. Barack Obama has only vetoed two bills in his tenure, but he will now have a chance to dust off that power, secure in the knowledge that the Republican majorities in the Senate and the House will have little hope of overriding his veto on anything that is remotely partisan.

In order to return to power in a future Congress, the Democrats should start thinking big. A filibuster reform is unlikely to be the cause of any great legislative accomplishments passing in the next Congress. But it could be the step the Democrats need to take to get Congress back on the path of action. After an electoral drubbing, bold action is worth taking. Throwing its biggest weapon to the ground is exactly the step needed to get the party back on track.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He blogs at http://recallelections.blogspot.com/. He can be reached at joshuaspivak@gmail.com.

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr

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  1. tdm3624 November 10, 2014

    Great idea! I like it.

  2. Richerd Heatherly November 10, 2014

    While yesterday’s liberal is today’s conservative, today’s liberal is tomorrow’s communist.

    1. cpbis November 11, 2014

      What? Best check the definition of Communism. Plus, would be very difficult to achieve within our system. Liberals are progressives who look to the future rather than being reactionaries who wait to act. Most people tend to be reactionaries and not preventive oriented.

      1. Billie November 11, 2014

        it’s just a word they throw around. They don’t even know what it means.

        1. Allan Richardson November 11, 2014

          I believe Richerd Heatherly was speaking sarcastically. Maybe it would have been clearer if “communist” had been in quotation marks.

          Or maybe he was speaking in terms of changes in one’s ideology, that is, if those who used to be liberals have become conservatives, those who are liberals today may become desperate enough to become actual communists. It seems to me that today’s liberals, AND yesterday’s conservatives, are CALLED communist by today’s conservatives. Obama is governing more like Eisenhower than LBJ or (if he had been elected) Hubert Humphrey. Reagan asked Congress to raise taxes 11 times, which the Tea Party would consider disqualifying today.

  3. Bill Thompson November 11, 2014

    NOW you want to eliminate the filibuster? The filibuster should’ve been eliminated as soon as Democrats took control of the Senate, we may not have been in the position we presently are. Now is the time the filibuster is going to be needed more than ever. There is the possibility that the Democratic leadership does not have one strategical Brain cell amongst them. Harry and Nancy have to go.

  4. browninghipower November 11, 2014

    Oh my! Really? Expecting the Dems to have anything like courage, vision, gonads (I know, redundancy) etc is like expecting the Sun to rise in the West. Nice try Mr. Spivak. Hell, there are 6 Dems just chomping at the bit to help the goopers meet the 60-vote threshold. And the pundits were once chortling over the possible demise of the gop like the Whigs. I’m thinking the Dems will go the way of the Whigs.

  5. ExRadioGuy15 November 11, 2014

    Sen. McTurtle was asked last year what he’d do as Majority Leader….first thing he said was to “nuke the Filibuster”. That way, the Democrats can’t do to him what he and his Fascist comrades of the GOP did to Harry Reid since 2007. Oh, the hypocrisy! (hypocrisy is one of the 10 GOP Tenets)

  6. alphaa10000 November 11, 2014

    Dispensing with the filibuster was a Democratic dream when they owned the chamber in question, but ending the filibuster as an end in itself, even now, is not key to forward progress.
    First, too much is at stake in the next two years. Democrats must dig in to prevent damage to social programs, to prevent dismantling of regulatory structures (DEregulation of Wall Street merging banks and funds brought about a massive scandal which cratered our economy), and of course, to prevent a repetition of the G.W. Bush-led invasion of Iraq.
    Second, the optimal way to end the filibuster is to win a majority which can vote the matter through to an end, once and for all (despite filibuster)
    The current Democratic Party needs massive reorganization to correct a gross operational failure– despite claiming to represent most of America, most of America did not bother to accept the party’s invitation to turn out in support. Only 34 percent of eligible voter turnout is a crisis, and a (non) vote of “no confidence” in the present system.
    Obama campaigned on progressive ideas, and generated a firestorm of enthusiastic citizen participation. Once in office, however, Obama negotiated away too much of his progressive agemda, and began to lose.
    By 2014, the public no longer associated him with the Obama of 2007-2008.
    In fairness, it should be said the Clintonistas who controlled the Denver convention of 2008 with their “superdelegates” forced Obama to accept nomination on their terms, not his. Which meant Obama ceased to be a progressive the night he was nominated to run for the party in the 2008 campaign.

  7. 1standlastword November 11, 2014

    Wouldn’t this be like promoting campaign finance reform towards the purpose of de-legalizing lobbying???
    Killing the filibuster to any politician of any party is like kryptonite to Superman…
    Perish the thought friend

  8. Allan Richardson November 11, 2014

    Personally, I think the filibuster should be reformed rather than eliminated. The original filibuster had built-in limits, since it required an actual continued act of speaking on the floor, and a filibustering Senator was often reduced to reading a phone book (for millennials: a hard copy printout of a local or regional phone number database), and eventually would get tired, as well as looking rather silly in media reports (also, the Congressional Record should be required to publish the FULL text of all debate speeches, rather than a reference to some external publication). The “silent” filibuster used today is basically a 40 percent plus one minority telling the presiding officer that they WOULD filibuster, delaying INDEFINITELY any vote on cloture.

    Delaying debate behavior (which I suggest as a NEW name for “filibuster”) should be limited in length of time, number of cloture votes, and/or other measures of the degree of delay, but not totally eliminated. In addition, the “secret hold” should be abolished; a Senator who wishes to delay a bill or a nomination should be required to do so in PUBLIC VIEW, and such a “public hold” which would replace the secret hold should also be time-limited.

  9. Nick Bradshaw November 15, 2014

    Any way you cut it, there’s no major difference between today’s liberals and their socialist ancestors.


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