In a World Without Filibusters

January 23rd, 2010 at 8:00 am David Frum | 4 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 second installment in a series.  Click here to read the rest of the series.


One preliminary: let’s understand what the filibuster actually DOES.

Filibuster critics argue that it enhances the minority at the expense of the majority. People who know the Senate well tell me that this is not precisely accurate.

In a world without filibusters, minorities could stop majorities in the same way they do in the House: with killer amendments. The filibuster aids the majority by making it much more difficult to insert killer amendments into legislation.

Here’s how that works. Suppose I’ve rounded up 50 votes plus 1 for my Gumdrops and Sunshine Bill of 2011 – but that 49 senators hate it. In a world without the filibuster, I’m all set, right? Not so fast. Suppose my 51 are intensely divided over another piece of legislation: the Long Walks and Cold Showers Bill. A clever opponent of my Bill might propose to attach the Long Walks and Cold Showers measure as an amendment.

Under the old filibuster rules, the hard core of the 40 strong supporters of the Gumdrop bill could filibuster the Long Walks amendment and preserve the original bill intact. But without the filibuster, the amendment passes. My 51 senators split, the anti Long Walk group defects, and the bill fails.

As an old congressional hand advises: “The greatest power of the minority is the power to propose non-germane amendments.” The filibuster deprives the minority of that power. That’s one reason that Harry Reid does not disapprove the filibuster as much as liberal bloggers do.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • readerOfTeaLeaves

    Well, golly David. I guess that I’m simply a ‘librul blogger’ who can’t get my head around the minutia of Senate rules.

    Here’s what I see: your use of ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ harkens back, like most of us, to the gauzy, pretty days of the 1780s, or the 1840s, or the 1880s, or the 1920s, or the 1950s, or … whenever you prefer.

    But those terms ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ always imply that the two are fairly well balanced; that the majority is perhaps 70 people and the minority is maybe 30 people and they’re all reasonable, civic-minded, noble souls.

    Here’s what we have today:
    On the GOP side, we have a couple of guys who are a little sketchy, assuming that you think hiring a hooker to put you in diapers, or asking Mommy and Daddy to pay off your ex-employee-now-ex-mistress and her spouse are not exactly what most of us do during an average week.

    On the Dem side, also a lack of perfection, but so far no known diaper-wearers or requests that parents pay off ex-employee-mistresses. (Those Dems, they’re just sooooo ‘boring’…)

    So Diaper Guy (David Vitter, R-La) and Landrieu — from the state that got whomped by a hurricane where we’ve all been sending money the past few years — can currently outvote the senators who represent: Apple, Google, the ports, cities, Hollywood, trucking firms, enormous ag production, and the rest of economic productivity of California?! And we’re supposed to just shut up in the back of the room and let this mess play out?

    How is that serious, Mr. Frum?
    And that’s not snark.
    How can you justify claiming that nothing is wrong with this picture?

    Oh, and Corker or Shelby can outvote my senators who represent… Microsoft, Boeing, vast ag production, and the originators of cell phones. But I’m just supposed to yawn and roll over without so much as pointing out that this is not ‘minority’ versus ‘majority’ — this is magnitudes of difference.

    This is like saying that one should not fret about the fact that a flea can outvote a hippo, or that an asteroid is ‘smaller than’ the sun.

    What your argument misses are magnitude, velocity, and — in the end — demographic and economic reality.

    Remind me here — I understand that we are all One Nation Under God, but where is it written that half of us concentrated in 9 states, doing our darndest to fund universities, research, public health, public education, cops, first responders, and a multitude of other necessary services (like libraries and hospitals) also are supposed to shut up and let the Diaper Guy and the MommyPleasePayOffMyMistressGuy run the show without pointing out that their states aren’t exactly economic engines, aren’t exactly producing the research that is required to move this nation forward, and aren’t exactly pulling their share of the public load?

    If we were talking disparites of 30-70, that might be acceptable.
    But we are talking disparities on the order of magnitude of 2:36, and that is why whether the minority wants to use legislative sabotage like endless amendments and filibusters, the current rules are not sustainable.

    That’s not because it’s my view.
    It’s not because I’m a ‘librul’.

    It’s because I can spot a demographic and economic hurricane when I see one.
    You might want to spend a bit more time at US Census or Wikipedia and think this whole topic through in a more thoughtful fashion before you continue to claim that orders of magnitude like 2:36 make no difference in the world.

    Whether I happen to like or dislike that fact is completely irrelevant.
    I try to get out of the way of a hurricane when I see one in the offing.
    But evidently, you seem to think it’ll just be a cute little thundercloud.

    Your choice.

  • readerOfTeaLeaves

    And “Filibuster critics argue that it enhances the minority at the expense of the majority. People who know the Senate well tell me that this is not precisely accurate.” should take a stats course.
    It might help them think more clearly about all this.

  • Mandos

    David’s argument doesn’t make any sense in a world in which 41 senators are committed to full obstructionism. The basic problem is that there are a series of related, unresolved crises in American society, and the structure of the American political process prevents a majority from coming up with coherent solutions to these crises. But it also allows the majority in some cases to use the minority as an alibi. The majority needs to be able to implement a large, coherent program of solutions to these ever-mounting crises—and take political responsibility for it.

    The USA needs a Parliament.

  • Arch

    Since the name of the game now seems to be block anything the opposition proposes regardless of whether you would normally support it (we’ll see if the democrats play the same game when they’re back in the minority (eventually)) the fillibuster does seem to make the country damn near ungovernable.