Filibusters: Trying to Kill Them Only Makes Them Stronger

January 23rd, 2010 at 9:00 am David Frum | 5 Comments |

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The Democratic majority in the Senate has dropped below 60, and suddenly the air is thick with calls for filibuster reform. As a practical matter, it’s hard to see how the filibuster could be altered unless leaders in both parties agree. So – any reason Republicans should do so? Over the next few posts, I’ll suggest some ways to think about this problem.

This is the third installment in a series.  Click here to read the rest of the series.

Another caution to keep in mind about the filibuster: as with campaign finance reform, past attempts to reform it have instead aggravated the very conditions that reformers most deplore. After the Civil Rights filibusters of the 1960s, then Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd advanced an ingenious proposal to avoid future Senate paralysis: Instead of a filibuster stopping all Senate business, it would only stop the one particular measure targeted by the filibuster – other bills could proceed. Instead of containing the filibuster, this measure normalized it – making it a much more common feature of Senate life than ever.

Advocates of reform should be careful what they wish for.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • sinz54

    Republicans would back off the threat of filibuster, if they thought that the public would turn against them in November.

    But they know that they are riding a popular tide against Obama’s leftist tilt. And so, smelling Obama’s growing political weakness, they’re going for his throat. They have no intention of letting him take credit for any major achievement like health care reform. (The only exception to this rule is national security. They would be happy if Obama caught Osama bin Laden. But that’s about it.)

  • readerOfTeaLeaves

    David, I think your ‘analysis’ is disingenuous.
    To compare the events of the 1960s to today’s use of the filibuster for obstructionist purposes is flawed.
    The social, economic, demographic, and communications conditions of the 1960s are not a good baseline for the current issues surrounding the filibuster.

    Note that in the 1960 US Census, the state of California listed 15,850,000 people, whereas Nebraska had 1,414,000.

    Today, California’s population is listed as 36,961,664 — in other words, a very large state population has more than doubled since 1960 (and not entirely from illegal immigrants, but from in-migration from other states, as well an newly arrived citizens).
    In contrast, the state of Nebraska shows a 2000 US Census population that has risen by only about 1/4 since 1960, to a new total of 1,796,619.

    So to drive home my point — using actual, verifiable statistics (rather than, say, partisan posturing):

    California in 1960 = 15,850,000
    California in 2000 = 36,961,664
    In other words, California’s population has grown by about 230%.

    Nebraska in 1960 = 1,414,000
    Nebraska in 2000 = 1,796,619
    In contrast, it appears that Nebraska’s population has increased by about 27% in the past 50 years.

    So in 1960, the Nebraska senators could ‘outvote’ California senators by a ratio of 1:15.
    Today, that ratio is 1:36.

    On what planet do you view that growing disparity as a rational basis for stable social change?!

    Identifying the filibuster as a problem would never have occurred if the GOP Senate had not acted like a bunch of crybaby obstructionists and started whining about ‘death panels’ back last summer.

    It would never have become a topic if adults had acted like, well… adults.

    I actually have a perfectly content, busy life but I am a political junkie.
    I have better things to do with my time on most days than come to a conservative blog and point out that no matter what you want to argue, a look at the DATA will show you that whining about the filibuster being simply a ‘political’ issue makes you appear to be nothing more than an ideological shill.

    Get. Out. A.Calculator.
    If I can do it on a Saturday morning, you surely have one on your computer that would function equally well — and someone actually **pays** you to do it.
    Good grief!

  • kevin47


    Your argument is against the electoral college, not the use of the filibuster, so I fail to see how David’s argument is disingenuous on those grounds. My guess is that, political junkie though you may be, you probably became much more interested in the question of whether the filibuster ought to be legal (and 1960 census counts) about a year ago.

  • readerOfTeaLeaves

    Thanks, but you guess incorrectly.
    I didn’t become interested in the demographics until last fall, after watching a broken system clank through one drama after another with no meaningful policy results.

    As for my argument being against ‘the electoral college’, you are mistaken.
    Since when does the ‘electoral college’ define and constrain the way in which the Senate operates?
    It doesn’t do so in any meaningful way.

    My argument is against the use of the filibuster.
    The national demographics are completely inconsistent with the way in which this rule is now being used.

    Perhaps you should read the stats that I listed a second time to understand my point.

  • Kanzeon

    I appreciate your comments on the filibuster, as well as what you are trying to acheive with this site.

    But your analysis and suggestions lack a fundamental framework.

    There shouldn’t be any problem with the filibuster. As a last ditch tactic on matters of fundamental policy disagreement, it serves a valuable function.

    The problem is the routine use of the filibuster. The solution lies in dealing with the root of the frequency of its use.

    And the problem of the filibuster is that the Republican party has decided to block every Obama initiative, no matter what it is, with a goal of destroying him.

    Eliminate that problem, and we will have no need to discuss reforming the filibuster. (And that is why I think that the filibuster discussion loses focus when health care is the main topic – to me the problem isn’t health care, but the next three years).

    I’d take your comments more seriously if you would identify the problem correctly. The problem, today, is the Republican party, not the filibuster. Focus on cleaning your own house, not the Senate’s.