Ten Miles Square

Blog

April 10, 2013 8:16 AM The Filibuster Can’t Defeat Gun Control

By Jonathan Bernstein

Everyone’s beating up on Harry Reid. Dan Savage:

Republicans regard first and second graders as expendable. Wish Dems felt the same about the filibuster.

And, sure, might as well quote Wil Wheaton:

@fakedansavage I wonder if people sending thousands of post cards that say “I told you so” to Harry Reid would get movement on reform?

Justin Green notes that Reid has threatened majority-imposed Senate reform over judges, but:

But if you’re a liberal, don’t get your hopes up about Reid doing the same thing to get a vote on gun control. The why is easy: many of the Senators who are softly in favor of a vote on gun control really don’t want to have to actually take that vote. In other words, a red-state Democrat is fine saying she supports the idea of talking about passing stricter gun laws, provided she doesn’t have to cast the vote. The filibuster allows her to say one thing while not having to act on that position.

This is all…well, it’s all beside the point.

If you care about substance, then what matters here is getting something that can pass the Senate, pass the House, and get signed into law.

And the filibuster basically has nothing to do with that. You need something that (1) Barack Obama is willing to sign; that (2) John Boehner is willing to support — or at least willing to put on the House floor with the knowledge that it has the votes; and that (3) can get 60 votes in the Senate.

For bill after bill after bill, and almost certainly including gun legislation, there is nothing that fulfills conditions (1) and (2) without also being able to fulfill condition (3). That is, anything that can get through the House and that the president is willing to sign will get at least 60 votes in the Senate. The filibuster doesn’t matter.

Now, as far as reluctance to change filibuster rules…it is true, as Green says, that there are plenty of times when Democrats don’t want to vote on something. But I really don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Indeed, while it’s true that politicians may not always see it that way, the truth is there’s probably not very much difference in electoral terms between voting on a bill and voting on cloture; any decent media consultant can surely make an attack ad on the latter as easily as on the former. The main reason that Senators want to preserve the traditional Senate is because it gives individual Senators considerable influence; the secondary reason is because partisan incentives include the fear of what the other party will do when they are in control. I think efforts to duck votes are really far behind those reasons. After all, a more party-run Senate would be better, not worse, at limiting floor votes to only what the majority party wants to vote on — as a quick look at the House can confirm.

The reason that Harry Reid is more interested in nomination reform than legislative reform right now is very simple: there’s no divided government on nominations (since the House isn’t involved), and so reform would actually make a substantial difference. On legislation, switching to a majority party dictatorship in the Senate would make little if any difference, so the incentives for doing it are tiny.

I realize that those who want gun legislation don’t trust Harry Reid (who is rarely with them on these issues). But this has nothing to do with Reid. It has everything to do with the context of divided government.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Back to Home page

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
tags ,