Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 2, 2009

THERE'S NOTHING NORMAL ABOUT IT.... Washington Post political reporter Perry Bacon, Jr., chatted with readers about a variety of issues today, but one exchange in particular stood out for me.

A reader asked a good question that often goes overlooked: "The filibuster is out of control. Why should 40 Republicans get to veto what the majority wants? Do you think we'll ever get filibuster reform? It wasn't always like this -- filibusters used to be rare."

Bacon's response, in its entirety, read: "The Democrats filibustered lots and lots of things from 2003 to 2007." That was it, the whole response to a highly pertinent question. Nothing about the reform-minded inquiry; nothing about the relevant history.

Now, I'm not necessarily trying to pick on Bacon here. In fact, I suspect many political reporters work under the same assumptions -- Dems filibustered when the GOP was in the majority, the GOP filibusters when the Dems are in the majority. It's all perfectly routine. "Everyone" knows that nothing passes the Senate without 60 votes, so there's no point in even answering a legitimate question about the filibuster being "out of control" in any kind of detail.

Except, these assumptions are wrong. Perhaps now's a good time to republish this chart from Norm Ornstein.


If you're having trouble making out the years, note that as recently as the 1960s, filibusters were rare (and as it turns out, largely inconsequential). The number spiked in the last two years of Clinton's presidency, and then spiked again after Democrats won back Congress in 2006. The chart doesn't include the current Congress, but we know all too well that the tactic is now an assumed hurdle for practically every bill and nominee.

Is Bacon right that Democrats "filibustered lots and lots of things from 2003 to 2007"? It depends, I suppose, on how one defines "lots and lots" -- the differences between those Democratic minorities and the current GOP minority are quantitative and qualitative, and it's irresponsible to argue that the two are comparable, or worse, identical.

Senate Republican broke a record in the last Congress -- and that was with a veto backstop at the White House -- and there's every reason to believe Republicans' obstructionist tactics will break the record again in the 111th Congress that ends next year.

There's nothing routine about this distortion of institutional constraints. It's an abuse unseen in American history.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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"Now, I'm not necessarily trying to pick on Bacon here...."

No reason to be so graceful. A WaPo political reporter knows, or should know, that the use of filibuster has exploded in the past couple of election cycles. Because Bacon and his ilk hide the disparity, the American public is misinformed.

Posted by: danimal on November 2, 2009 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

There is no point in expecting anything good or accurate to come out of the Kaplan Daily.

DougJ from Balloon Juice manages to get into a lot of those online discussions. When a tough question is asked, the WaPo response is somewhere between recreating facts to suit their narrative and flat-out saying "F-ck you, peasant" to the person asking the question.

Posted by: John S. on November 2, 2009 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

How, actually, would you get filibuster reform?

Posted by: cld on November 2, 2009 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

The filibuster rule is something we must confront. As a Senate tradition, the filibuster does help protect the rights of the minority against majority tyranny. But it also permits what amounts to Minority Rule when you have a political party that is as rigidly ideologically and partisan as today's GOP is that believes cooperation with Democrats amounts to conspiring with the enemy. Convinced of their own righteousness, the Dixiefied GOP has no reservations about sacrificing the needs of the country by sabotaging the workings of the federal government so as to take advantage of the public's impatience with the stalemates in Washington.

Posted by: Ted Frier on November 2, 2009 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

It is time for "back to the future", and getting rid of the reforms of the 1960s. Used to be, if 40 or more Senators wanted to obstruct majority rule, they had to pay a price for it. Getting together to hold the floor through 24 hour sessions, that in some instances lasted a week or more. Not only the physical price, but the political price of putting everything else on the Senate's agenda on hold. The public doesn't mind the party of "NO" so much now, but when the government grinds to a halt, they will suddenly start to take notice and it is the party of obstruction that will take the heat.

Under those circumstances, the filibuster will go back to being what it was intended to be, an emergency brake on majority mis-rule, not an unequal seat at the table for every minority crackpot who can stir up 39 other crackpots to agree with them.

Posted by: majun on November 2, 2009 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

The Washington Post is wrong. Again and again.

Posted by: robert on November 2, 2009 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

"Senate Republican broke a record in the last Congress"

That actually understates things. Not only did Senate Republicans break the record for filibusters, they broke the record in the first year of a two year term.

Posted by: Mike T on November 2, 2009 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

I believe this is just another symptom of the Republican party imploding. it's voice has been reduced to the bare essentials of using the filibuster and far right-wing hate rhetoric - these are the only tools left in their toolbox.

The real question is what the Republican party will look like after 2010 and 2012 if indeed there is a "Republican Party" after 2012.

When looking at the bigger picture - all these events seem to foretell the omens of a political party on the verge of splintering into nomadic tribes of angry white people.

Filibusters are just the symptom of the disease. Elections might just be the cure.

Posted by: Dean on November 2, 2009 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Bacon is a hack. He probably can't even spell filibuster.

Posted by: Winkandanod on November 2, 2009 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

A better question is why are the Senate Democrats so reluctant to use reconciliation to enact popular legislation after the Senate Republicans use it so often to ram through their UNPOPULAR and FAILED agenda ?

Posted by: Joe Friday on November 2, 2009 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

Of course, false equivalencies are the backbone of conservative rhetoric. Lying is all they have.

Posted by: DH Walker on November 2, 2009 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

It's not a random mistake by the WaPo. Their political reporters re-gurgitate Border-esqe drivel constantly.

Style is fun interesting, local coverage pretty good. National political reporting has been painfully fact - free for years. And of course the editorial page is filled with cranky nut cases.

Posted by: Samuel Knight on November 2, 2009 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

I blame Jimmy Stewart and Frank Kapra for making the filibuster so gosh-darn appealing.

Posted by: chrenson on November 2, 2009 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

Let's just get rid of the senate and make the house terms 4 years all on the same cycle. National elections will be held only once every four years.

Posted by: doubtful on November 2, 2009 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

What surprises me is just how invincibly ignorant Bacon appears to be. The numbers on Steve's chart have been available for years. I remember writing a couple of blog posts on the issue during the 110th Congress. I remember reading a lot of others as well. Maybe if Bacon did a little "reporting" before shooting off his mouth, he wouldn't sound like a over paid fool.

Posted by: Ron Byers on November 2, 2009 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

"Let's just get rid of the senate ..."

While you are at it, why not get rid of state and local political bodies since all issues appear to be national "needs"?!?

Posted by: m on November 2, 2009 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

What surprises me is just how invincibly ignorant Bacon appears to be.

Then you're missing the point. He's not stupid - he's just lying. They just make it look like cluelessness to avoid accountability.

Posted by: DH Walker on November 2, 2009 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK


Getting rid of the senate refocuses issues to a local level, so getting rid of state and local bodies would be counterproductive.

As to the senate, I see no need for an undemocratic body which now essentially requires a supermajority for bill passage with terms so long it has become nothing more than a breeding ground for the corrupt and greedy and a bottleneck.

Obviously I know it's a pipe dream, but since we went to direct election of senators (which in my opinion diminished the power of state government significantly), the senate was doomed to failure. It is, at this point, irredeemably inefficient and woefully incompetent. Anything that gets done in this country will be done in spite of, not because of, those in the senate.

Posted by: doubtful on November 2, 2009 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

It's really the super-majority requirement that fucks things up.

I would suggest a Constitutional amendment to ban super-majorities in all things for State and Federal governments, excepting treaties and declarations of war.

Posted by: cld on November 2, 2009 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

Chart would be more useful if it was color coded by party leading the filibuster. You could even do the color coding within a congress(i.e., 40 GOP filibusters, 5 Dem filibusters in a certain congressional term). That would be more illustrative.

Posted by: NovaGuy on November 2, 2009 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

How 'bout someone pass this on to Bacon...

Posted by: DougMN on November 2, 2009 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, where is the "Email this to your local Senator or Congressperson" button? Can't be that hard to make...

Posted by: Dean on November 2, 2009 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

At the risk of looking like either a contrarian or Republican operative, while the Democrats' filibuster numbers from 2003-2007 were significantly below the two Republican spikes before and after, they were still significantly above the historical averages of the previous three decades. Don't be so quick to completely absolve them in this.

Posted by: OmerosPeanut on November 2, 2009 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Just as context here, the Democrats filibustered, by a rough read of the graph, about 45 bills between 2003 and 2007; the Republicans then turned around and filibustered north of 60 bills in 07-08.

If "a lot" of bills were filibustered in that *four year period*, certainly that plus another 50% in half the time is cause for pause, right?

I mean, we're talking about *three times* the rate of the Democratic filibustering crew to the Party of No.

As for how to reform filibustering law, here's a start: the vote for cloture burden decreases with every denial of cloture, say by 2 votes per, and increases (up to 60) with every passed bill, say by 1/2 vote per. With such a "cost" to the filibuster, the "party of no" would then have to pick and choose what they want to filibuster.

I don't know. But with a scruples-free party in the game, the rules need to be stiffened up. Unfortunately, quality of governance suffers, but did the American people really believe such wouldn't be the case when they elected 40 know-nothing anti-science cretins to the Senate?

Posted by: Tom Dibble on November 2, 2009 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

As others have said, the filibuster as it exists now carries no burden on those invoking it. The rules need to be changed to make a miniority party acutally filibuster. Stand on the floor of the Senate and read phone books. Bring the Senate to halt.

Let the public see republicans (and their DINO enablers) bring the gov't to a stop. If the Republicans are forced to shut down the gov't over their 'principles' they will fold.

Everytime the Dems have stood up and forced the republican's hand (under Bush I and Clinton) the Republicans folded. They are bullies. And like all bullies they are cowards. Punch them in the nose and fall down crying.

Posted by: thorin-1 on November 2, 2009 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

Every working reporter knows that if he/she turns in a story saying that both sides are equally culpable, there will be no trouble, but that if a story calls out one side, that side will scream about bias. This means that reporters are strongly rewarded for saying that the truth lies half way between Harry Reid's view and Mitch McConnell's view. Democrats to the left of Reid can be safely ignored.

Posted by: Joe Buck on November 2, 2009 at 3:24 PM | PERMALINK



Posted by: ET on November 2, 2009 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

I'm sure that when the Republicans regain control, the usage and effectiveness of fillibusters will greatly diminish, so this seems to be a Democratic problem.

Posted by: qwerty on November 2, 2009 at 5:00 PM | PERMALINK

Someone is surprised when one of the otherwise-unemployable morons at the Washington Pest proves that they are indeed an otherwise-unemployable moron?

Little Perry Bacon Jr. maybe a blithering idiot, but he knows which side of his bread was buttered by Fred Hiatt, and he knows what a good little suckass does when they're avoiding otherwise-unemployability in a collapsing (justifiably) industry.

Posted by: TCinLA on November 2, 2009 at 5:10 PM | PERMALINK

Just three comments:

1) Make every filibuster actually happen, no more head count fake filibusters. We want to see the filibusters ON THE SENATE FLOOR, on CSPAN

2) I'm glad to see Harry grow a spine. Our country has been lead to brink of complete economic ruin by Republicans run rampant. We're a long way from out of the woods despite whatever bullshit is being pedaled by Geithner or Summers. There will be more serious battles over financial reform and finding our way out of a depression.

3) Toss Joe to the wolves. Make him filibuster. Then cut off his knees - pass a law OUTLAWING ex-Senators from becoming lobbiest or anything close to it. (This means you, Tom. D. you slimey bastard.)

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