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Our Possible Dystopian Future


Mitch McConnell opposes filibuster reform with a truly, truly frightening scenario:

“If a bare majority can now proceed to any bill it chooses, and once on that bill, the majority leader, all by himself, can shut out all amendments that aren’t to his liking, then those who elected us to advocate for their views will have lost their voice in the legislative process,” McConnell said.

How terrifying — the United States Senate might function like pretty much every other democratic legislature on earth! This is almost as scary as contemplating the non-existent possibility that Congress will pass a broccoli mandate!

While unfortunately Reid gave the wrong answer, let’s also consider McConnell’s follow-up question:

“How would you feel if two years from now I have your job and my members are saying let’s get rid of the filibuster altogether with 51 votes?” McConnell asked Reid during floor debate.

I’d feel great about it!

Which is why I approve of this relatively modest filibuster reform, although I think the efficacy of requiring “real” filibusters is in itself greatly overstated. It’s the same reason that the Democrats should have filibustered Alito although it probably would have triggered the “nuclear option” rather than actually keeping Alito off the bench. The more you chip away, the more likely it is that Republicans will eliminate it when they get the chance. Which would be a great thing in the long term even if it meant some bad legislation in the short term.

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  • Craigo

    Reid et al are pretending very hard not to know that previous Beltway norms become a dead letter every time the Republicans take power.

  • S_noe

    If the filibuster is so awesome, McConnell can just reinstate it when he has a majority again. Right?

    • howard


  • Murc

    It’s important to note that those of us who want the filibuster to be killed deader than partisan comity aren’t in principle opposed to giving voice, influence, and power to the minority party.

    Speaking for myself, I would be perfectly okay with Senate rules that, say, guaranteed any individual Senator could get a certain number of bills voted on by the full Senate every session, forcing his colleagues to go on the record. And other existing rules, such as requiring a certain amount of debating time between when a bill is introduced and when it is voted on, are also pretty good. I’d even go so far as to say I’d be okay with mechanisms by which the minority can deliberately prolong the legislative process in order to draw attention to bills or appointments they find particularly repugnant.

    But what’s not okay is a de facto supermajority requirement that only needs four-tenths and a bit of the Senate to simply not show up to completely shut down the other six-tenths. That’s simply wrong.

    • Cody

      It would seem fair to say that the majority has rights too?

  • Richard

    Somewhat off topic, I saw Leonard Cohen on election night eve at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. He got a thunderous ovation when he came to the Democracy is Coming to the USA line. (Then again, he got thunderous ovations for most of the show. 78 years old and was on stage for three hours. Remarkable performance),

    • catclub

      Is it just me? Whenever I see that picture I think Leonard Nimoy. Large ears and squinting.

      • Richard

        He does look a lot like Nimoy. But go see him live – he’s currently on the Canadian leg of his tour. Its a remarkable show (his band is absolutely top notch and the backup singers, the English twins and Sharon Robinson, who is also his songwriting collaborator, are phenomenal.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Yeah, last time I saw him in NYC it was the same thing. Amazing.

    • BobS

      I saw him at the Fox Theater in Detroit last night and it was easily one of the best shows I’ve seen. My wife got tenth row center stage tickets as a birthday present from her husband, and after much deliberation she decided to take me. Show started at 8 and ended after 1130- most 78 year old guys aren’t even up that time of night- with several encores and just a half hour intermission. Javier Mas was spectacular, as was the whole band, and “democracy is coming, to the USA” got ovations nearly as loud as “I’m your man”.

      • Joseph Slater

        Hey, BobS, I posted before I saw your post. Apparently we saw the same show. I co-sign all you wrote. I was sitting pretty close to you too (row F, center). Small world!

        • BobS

          Same good taste in music and blogs. I wish you’d have said something before now- I’d have bought you an overpriced beer (the 24oz Molson from a plastic cup tasted surprisingly good, but it didn’t seem quite as elegant as the surroundings). By the way, I was the guy there with some grey in his hair.

          • Joseph Slater

            I would have bought the next round. I was the guy with the bald spot and receding hairline.

            From our descriptions, I’m sure we could have found each other. . . .

            Great review of the show in the Detroit News, by the way, if you haven’t seen it already.

    • Joseph Slater

      I saw him last night in Detroit, and same reactions. Great show.

  • Sly

    And if filibuster reform is not pursued, what incentives do Senate Democrats have in not abusing it after seeing it successfully abused by Republicans? In fact, if the Republicans take the Senate sooner rather than later, obstructionism would be (rightly) regarded as at least one of the principle means by which that victory was accomplished. The Democratic minority’s desire to obstruct would increase in direct proportion to the electoral success of the Republicans.

    But for sheer stupidity and hubris, I liked the “If you stop us from shutting down the Senate, we’ll shut down the Senate” response from Coburn and Cornyn threat a lot better.

    • NonyNony

      And if filibuster reform is not pursued, what incentives do Senate Democrats have in not abusing it after seeing it successfully abused by Republicans?

      Democratic voters reward Democratic politicians who make the government function properly. Republican voters do not do likewise with Republicans.

      The two groups of politicians do not have the same incentives from their constituencies, and so the filibuster is not an equal tool (which is why the Dems didn’t break the government back when Bush had power despite being in the minority in both chambers.)

      McConnell knows this. That’s why he can play the “how would you like it” card because he knows that the filibuster is much more powerful in the hands of a party that doesn’t have to care about effective government than it is in the hands of a party that does.

      • Timb

        The media also complains loudly when Dems act like spoiled children, a la Republicans since 2006

        • njorl

          I did a google search a few years back of the supposedly liberal Washington Post during the Bush presidency. When Democrats controlled the Senate, all stories of contentious bills referred to “60 votes needed to pass”. The word “filibuster” never appeared in any story about any specific vote. It only appeared in the abstract. When Republicans controlled the Senate, the word “filibuster” routinely was used whenever Democrats blocked bills. It was as if the style guide for the Post switched with control of the Senate.

          I posted the results in Yglesias’ old blog (archive is lost), and a couple other bloggers picked up on it. I checked again months later, and the Post had begun mixing in its usage of “Filibuster” and “60 votes needed” more randomly.

  • Fighting Words
    • Timb

      A sad day. What a great job he did

  • I’m actually OK with the filibuster. History, not just American history, shows an awful lot of bad legislation, even dangerous legislation, is passed on passions (PATRIOT Act, anyone?) and it’s usually harder to put the djinn back in the bottle once the stopper is open.

    That said, I’d have no problem with making filibusters harder, like, say, actually making the obstacle get up and talk for 24 hours or however long it takes to defeat bad legislation.

    • ajay

      Filibuster didn’t stop the Patriot Act, though, did it? Surely that’s an argument for making filibusters easier?

      Or, better, to institute Frank Herbert’s concept of BuSab.

      • Obviously, I meant the PATRIOT Act as a bill passed in the passion of the moment, and not as an example of a filibusterable bill.

    • Murc

      The question isn’t do we sometimes pass bad legislation in the heat of the moment. The question is does the filibuster do more harm than good?

      Bad legislation passed out of fear or ignorance usually has strong bipartisan support. The Patriot Act and the AUMF didn’t pass because the Democrats failed to filibuster them; they passed with the avid, enthusiastic support of a large part of the Democratic Party. There were filibuster-proof supermajorities for both things.

      Our veto points cause us to lag significantly behind the rest of the civilized world in terms of social progress. Eliminating one of them would be excellent.

    • Craigo

      98-1. If only Russ Feingold had mounted a totally useless filibuster, maybe it would have never passed.

      When has the filibuster stopped actual bad legislation from passing?

      • Richard

        Back in the early 60s, Wayne Morse used it to prevent some legislation from passing which would have eviscerated some of the Warren Court criminal rights decisions. Cant remember the details but I wrote a paper on it in law school

        • Craigo

          You’re probably remembering a wiretapping bill from the McCarthy era. Morse was a vigorous opponent, but the bill actually failed in committee.

          His famous filibuster was against returning Federal tidelands oil to Texas.

      • Scott Lemieux

        When has the filibuster stopped actual bad legislation from passing?

        Exactly. When people praise the filibuster they inevitably discuss 1)legislation that passed despite the filibuster or 2)bills whose failure to pass the filibuster had nothing to do with. Which tells you all you need to know.

        • Malaclypse

          No, no – they also discuss Jimmy Stewart.

          • Sly

            No, no – they also only discuss Jimmy Stewart.


        • But would you agree that it’s hard to say over the course of the last twenty years or so, whether the filibuster prevented bad legislation from passing since its frequent use has deterred even *debating* legislation?

          • Scott Lemieux

            Legislative debates don’t actually change any votes.

      • OK, I can think of one off the top of my head: making the Bush tax cuts permanent.

        That was accomplished then through reconciliation, which created the current “fiscal cliff” scenario.

        I’m sure I could come up with more given enough time.

    • catclub

      Maybe you could combine the effects by time limiting the length of effectiveness of votes that include ignoring a filibuster. If there was a filibuster, then votes need to be re-visited.

      Never mind, still does not get the Patriot Act reexamined.

  • c u n d gulag


    Sad news to report – the great Marvin Miller passed away at age 95.
    He was the man behind Baseball’s Players Union – one of the most successful unions in our countries history.

    Anyone who pissed-off Walter O’Malley and Dick Young this much, should have his face on Mt. Rushmore.

  • Sean

    Has the filibuster, excepting mr smith, ever been used for anything good? The only things that pop in mind are the current obstructionism and old strom railing against civil rights.

    • Filibusters are not constructive. This would be akin to asking if a gun has ever been used to build a house.

      Have they prevented bad legislation? Probably, certainly one prevented the Bush tax cuts from being made permanent.

      Have they improved bad legislation? Undoubtedly.

      • witless chum

        A future congress can’t be bound by a current one, so I don’t see how the Bush tax cuts could ever be mad permanent. Yes, people use that term, but they’re bullshitting.

    • Sherm

      I believe that the Glass-Steagall Act was a compromise bill following a filibuster led by Huey Long. And its a nice weapon for a minority party to have to deter a president from making radical judicial appointees (such as Bork and Thomas). Otherwise, it has been been largely used for obstructionism and to fight against civil rights legislation like you said.

      • Malaclypse

        And its a nice weapon for a minority party to have to deter a president from making radical judicial appointees (such as Bork and Thomas).

        Except Bork lost in a straight-up, non-filibustered vote, and Thomas is on the Court. But aside from those minor details…

        • Sherm

          I know that they got their straight up and down votes (and its quite possible that Bork would have been filibustered if he had enough votes for confirmation), and I agree that the filibuster sucks. But this strikes me as a classic case of being careful of what you wish for. Can you imagine the damage that the current republican party could inflict upon the country when they regain a majority of the senate and win back the white house (which they will)? The filibuster might be the only way to save the new deal programs.

          • Malaclypse

            Except Democrats have never once successfully filibustered a nominee, and Republicans have succeeded exactly one time.

            • Sherm

              But they have successfully filibustered many court of appeals judges. Charles Pickering comes to mind.

              • Malaclypse

                And Pickering served as well, albeit only for a year.

                And the flip side is the number of judges Obama can’t get through.

                • Sherm

                  I am painfully well aware of the republicans’ abuse of the filibuster. But I can’t agree at this point in time that it is a weapon which the democrats can afford to give up in view of the extremism of the present republican party.

                • Malaclypse

                  Okay, but right now the weapon is being used against the good guys very effectively, and rarely prevents any bad people from getting on the bench anyway, so I can’t agree with you on the merits of keeping it.

                • Sherm

                  I’m not even sure if I want to keep it. I just disagree with Scott’s opinion that getting rid of the filibuster is something to wish for, not to fear. I wish for it, but really fear it on account of the extremism of the republican party.

  • DrDick

    Actual democracy is conservatism’s greatest natural enemy.

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