Political Animal


March 06, 2013 4:04 PM Filibuster Reform Or Futility

By Ed Kilgore

Nobody should get their hopes up until Harry Reid has addressed the subject again, but those of us who think the lost opportunity for real, and necessarily unilateral (or if you insist, “nuclear”) filibuster reform was a major blunder for Senate Democrats should be cheered by this report from TPM’s Sahil Kapur:

In an interview on Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the author of a proposal to place more of the burden of sustaining a filibuster on the minority party, including forcing filibustering senators to speak on the floor, echoed remarks by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) earlier in the day about the need to revisit filibuster reform.
“Senate Republicans have demonstrated that they have absolutely no intention of ending their assault on the ability of the U.S. Senate to function,” Merkley told TPM, saying he had hoped the bipartisan agreement to preserve the 60-vote threshold but remove some obstacles to governing and ease gridlock. “Many of my colleagues are absolutely beside themselves with frustration, and that frustration is rapidly turning to fury.”
Senate Republicans have unleashed a string of filibusters since the bipartisan rules change deal, which did not change the 60-vote threshold, was enacted in January. They include the first-ever filibuster of a secretary of defense nominee (Chuck Hagel), a letter by 43 senators vowing to filibuster any nominee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the filibuster of a bill to avoid sequestration, and the filibuster of judicial nominee Caitlin Halligan. It was the Halligan filibuster Wednesday morning that set off Durbin and Merkley.

This news drifted across Washington even as Sen. Rand Paul was conducting an actual “talking filibuster” against the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director. Merkley (who made a “talking” requirement the centerpiece of his own reform initiative last year) chose to tout this not as another sign of GOP obstruction, but as a breath of fresh air:

“Rand Paul is saying ‘I have the courage of my conviction, I’m taking a stand and I want the people of America to know it.’ And that’s the way it absolutely should be if you’re working to block a nominee. You should be taking that responsibility,” Merkely said. “And I applaud him for doing that.”

I dunno about that. Maybe I’ve been swayed by Jonathan Bernstein’s argument that a “talking filibuster” requirement will just give right-wing Republicans a new way to sing their endless serenade to the almighty “conservative activist base” of their party. Or maybe being an old cracker it just reminds me too much of the dilatory tactics used against civil rights bills for so long, to the loud approbation of southern segregationists who treated the old goats controlling the Senate floor like the Confederate heroes of yore.

But the other thing we’ve learned since Reid’s version of “filibuster reform” took effect is that our friends in the MSM continue to struggle to call a filibuster and filibuster, and instead persist in talking about bills being “voted down” in the Senate because they don’t receive 60 votes. If it takes live demagoguery on the Senate floor to make it obvious what’s going on, making it’s worth the effort. But in any event, progressives should not shut up about filibuster reform until something significant is actually done about it.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • bdop4 on March 06, 2013 4:24 PM:

    "our friends in the MSM continue to struggle to call a filibuster and filibuster, and instead persist in talking about bills being “voted down” in the Senate because they don’t receive 60 votes."

    That's because in most people's minds, a filibuster out of sight is a filibuster out of mind. When you make people do what Rand Paul is doing, THEN it becomes a filibuster. And do you really think that what they say will convert new believers? They are preaching to the choir and people art starting to get tired of it.

  • c u n d gulag on March 06, 2013 4:44 PM:

    Thanks again, Harry!

    Republicans prove once again, that no matter what, scorpions and snakes is gonna sting and bite, no matter what!

    Next time, Senator Reid, remember the words of that great philosopher, George Santayana: "Those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it."

    Senator Reid, the Democrats are the ones who can learn from mistakes - Republicans are the ones who can't.
    So, what's YOUR excuse?

  • David Bailey on March 06, 2013 4:44 PM:

    Nobody should get their hopes up until Harry Reid has addressed the subject again . . .

    And not even then, if history is any guide.

  • David Bailey on March 06, 2013 4:48 PM:

    It's also worth pointing out how well this situation demonstrates the fecklessness of Washington Democracts. They identified a problem, did practically nothing to fix it, and are astonished to find that it still persists.

  • gdb on March 06, 2013 4:51 PM:

    True filibuster reform (i.e., end it) should have been the first item BHO pressed for four years ago. Had he done so, the 2010 House would have almost-certainly stayed Dem and todat we'd have 5-6% unemployment,a growing economy, and real health care reform--- not some hard to understand uinsurance reform. Even today, BHO and the current crop of most Dem Senators don't "get it".
    [Posted by accident in the subsequent column.]

  • scott_m on March 06, 2013 4:52 PM:

    At the end of previous round of discussion about this, some (Durbin, maybe?) started talking about putting the burden on the minority to maintain the filibuster rather than the majority to break it.

    I think that idea is freakin' brilliant. You could even argue that you're not actually doing a substantive change.

    Captcha: dynpini Jeremiah. Appropriate for posting about a jeremiad, no?

  • Peter C on March 06, 2013 4:55 PM:

    I share the fury which Kapur says that Senators now feel, but mine is directed to Reid who should have known better.

    Did he have the votes? If he insisted that Democratic Senators fall in line, YES!

    Even still, we deserved a vote. We deserve to know which holdouts to criticize.

    If we'd had filibuster reform and could move legislation in the Senate, we'd face a much different tactical situation now with regard to our stupid sequester. We could apply pressure from the Senate. We could advance legistlation to restore targeted spending balanced by loop-hole closing. We could advance a bill (for instance) which cut the tax subsidies to big oil and used the money to restore funding for research, education grants, WIC, or infrastructure.

    We could make the situation clear, saying "The sequester is stupid because it cuts good things we all want and here's how we restore them without hurting the economy or devastating other good programs!" Then, when the Republicans blocked these measures in order to protect the wealthy (or big oil or big pharma) it is obvious to the public.

    Without filibuster reform, this is just a pipe dream. So, we gave it all up, for WHAT??? Three seconds of comity and then 2 more years of full-court obstruction by McConnell and his cronies.

    We need a better Senate majority leader - one who can see the obvious at 5 paces.

    Before the Bush administration, I thought we needed to keep archane Senate rules so we could block obviously bad things from becoming law. But the Bush years gave us a myriad of blatantly bad things and our side refused to use the filibuster. We'd kept our powder dry but then refused to fire. If they will abuse it and we won't even use it, then it is not worth keeping. If you keep a gun in your house but would never fire it, you are much more likely to be killed with it during a burglary. You are much safer not having it.

  • abc on March 06, 2013 5:48 PM:

    Last time I checked the Constitution had a supermajority requirement for treaty passage but not for advice and consent on nominations. Filibustering judicial appointments is unconstitutional, regardless of whether the Senate wants to pretend otherwise through adoption of interanal rules.

    So much for the Gang of 14 who agreed in writing not to filibuster judicial appointments absent extraordinary circumstances. So the gutter partisan hack Brett Kavanagh gets a lifetime appointment to the DC circuit as a reward for authoring the hideous Starr Report but a qualified Democrat with actual litigation experience gets filibustered.

  • abc on March 06, 2013 5:51 PM:

    Sorry, "internal" - Freudian slip?/typo

  • rrk1 on March 06, 2013 7:25 PM:

    Harry Spineless Reid, and his fellow cowards in the Democratic majority cut Obama off at the knees with their capitulation on the filibuster. Not only the knees, but they went a little higher and castrated Obama, who never had very big cajones to begin with.

    My friends, liberals all, who say that Reid was only protecting future Democrats when then are in the minority. They just don't get it. The Rethugs will annihilate the filibuster when they come into the majority (let is never happen) without a second thought. The rules of Senate comity are dead, Harry, and it's about time you realized it.

  • sfer on March 06, 2013 7:57 PM:

    January 1 - Obama could have let the Bush tax cuts expire and negotiated tax cuts.
    January 15? - Harry Reid could have eliminated the filibuster and negotiated a replacement.

    This did not happen. Who takes responsibility?

  • Left Wing Conservative on March 06, 2013 9:36 PM:

    Wait a minute. Isn't Rand Paul filibustering John Brennan for CIA Director because he doesn't like the idea of the President ordering a targeted assassination of an American on "American soil"? Doesn't anyone else who reads PA think he has a point? Why wasn't this even mentioned? If you were going to just bitch about Harry Reid and the constant Republican obstructionism (and I'm always happy to read about that) why not do it about the filibustering of DC Circuit nominee Caitlin Halligan? Since when does anyone with a brain like John Brennan, torture apologist, for any appointment? Oh, except Obama who also gave us Larry Summers and Tim Geitner and Mary Shapiro...

  • BillB on March 06, 2013 11:28 PM:

    Major Kudos for my junior Senator, Jeff [D. OR] for making noise on this, and I have to wonder where my senior Senator, Mr. Wyden D-NY [OR] is, as he ought to be leading our party. Answer : he is living with his wealthy wife in NYC raising babies.

  • BillB on March 06, 2013 11:32 PM:

    Major Kudos for my junior Senator, Jeff [D. OR] for making noise on this, and I have to wonder where my senior Senator, Mr. Wyden D-NY [OR] is, as he ought to be leading our party. Answer : he is living with his wealthy wife in NYC raising babies.

  • SqueakyRat on March 07, 2013 5:14 AM:

    Paul wasn't talking for fun or on principle, he had to. He wasn't filibustering a bill, but rather a vote on cloture.

  • boatboy_srq on March 07, 2013 9:16 AM:

    I have to agree with Merkley here. A filibuster is still a filibuster, and the [ab]use of that action is still significant, but Paul's stand-up "talking filibuster" shows starkly how far down the rabbit hole we've gone. The dictionary and procedural definitions of "filibuster" are precisely the action Paul took yesterday; yet for the last few years "filibustering" a particular item has been interpreted as the mere intent to filibuster rather than the filibuster itself. The Reichwing has managed to make even the hint that somebody might even think about taking to the floor to obstruct action enough to make the Senate stop dead in its tracks. This is unacceptable. If the GOTea wants to use the filibuster as a practical procedure in the Senate, we should make them work for it - not let them simply threaten the procedure and then take the rest of the day (week?) on the golf course. I for one would relish the opportunity to make McConnell, McCain, Graham and the rest lose a little sleep (and maybe their voices as well) carrying out what merely threatening to do has ground the Senate to a halt.

    More than this, while it only takes one to actually carry out a genuine filibuster, it takes another 39 of his/her colleagues' support to maintain. It's one thing to say "the Senate cannot act", and quite another to have recorded votes by all those who, while not actively participating in a given filibuster, allow it to proceed. Get the rest of the GOTea recorded as voting to support the loudest Teahadists in the chamber and we may start to see some changes in behavior as their constituents start asking why they're not letting anything get done. It's unlikely Chambliss, Collins, Murkowski, Kirk, or even Rubio will appreciate being directly associated with repeatedly enabling the worst, loudest, most wingnutty voices - and if there's a means of directly identifying them with the most extreme positions the ones most guilty of abusing the filibuster share, then there's a wedge opportunity that can be used.