Blame the (Senatorial) System, Man


Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

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37 Responses

  1. Avatar zic says:

    James Fallows tackles the filibuster too; and recounts a friend’s evidence the founding fathers didn’t intend this perversion of our political system:

    “The fact that the founders expected the possibility of “equally divided” votes where the VP would break a tie is another piece of textual evidence for majority rule except where expressly provided elsewhere. The VP cannot break a tie if the decisive vote is 60.”


  2. Avatar Scott says:


    The Repubs could easily say the same thing when it is their ox being gored. That being said, I’m glad we have a system that makes it hard for the gov’t to do too much.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Scott says:

      sure. but the Dems aren’t a unified party in the same sense as the Republicans are. Also, if the Reps win, then they should get the chance to put through their agenda. I’m not a fan of their agenda (such as they can be said to have one), but this gridlock is insane.

      We are facing serious problems and as James Gleick said, the speed of fast is getting faster. And these slow-moving proceduralisms are making the institution unable to respond in an adequate time frame to the problems facing it.Report

      • The cynical answer is that gridlock is good – better to stop the car before they drive us over a cliff.Report

        • Avatar historystudent in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

          It may be cynical, but it can also be true. Filibusters serve as a way to slow down the process. Currently, with the trend toward trying to rush through huge bills (that are often in flux to the very minute that they are voted upon), that which applies the brakes through parliamentary process is more beneficial than not, and I hope will be retained. I opposed its elimination when the Republicans proposed it, and I oppose it now.Report

          • historystudent,

            You make a good point which I was just making on my own blog this morning. The thing that leads to gridlock is the fact that these bills are so huge and try to do so much. I don’t understand the rationale for big legislation guaranteed to create partisanship. If Congress had been willing to break out the 10% of stuff that caused problems into separate bills, the larger slate of provisions would have passed months ago with a degree of bipartisanship. As it was the bill languished for several months because of the public option, then another month because of the abortion funding, etc. If those had been taken out and pushed as separate bills, a real debate could have been had. The problem is that Democracts saw the only way to get those things is to hope that the public would want everything else so bad that they would swallow the bad stuff as the pricer for broader reform. They just under-estimated the effects of those poisoned pills.Report

        • Avatar Barry in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

          Mike, Dubya & Co pretty much drove us off of the cliff; I find it, um, ‘interesting’, that the checks and balances don’t work as well when it’s right-wingers doing stuff.Report

      • Avatar Scott in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        Oh now we see the real problem, Dems lack of party unity. So instead of blaming the system why not blame the peoples whose responsibility it is to whip the votes into line? Even with the system as it now stands, if you have 60 votes you can do what you want. Not to mention, the Senate was not made to move fast but instead be the deliberative body as opposed to the House. I think the Senate is moving fast enough on health care.Report

        • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Scott says:

          I’m not a Democratic. I leave up it to those who are to decide whether they should party unity or not. I was simply responding why the Republican counter-analogy is not a very good one.

          If you have 57 votes you should be able to pass legislation. The filibuster is in extreme cases only. Krugman cites a political scientist who said that it was used roughly 8% of the time in the 50s and now is used over 70% of the time. If we go back to 8%, I’d be fine with that.Report

          • Avatar Scott in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

            “If you have 57 votes you should be able to pass legislation.”

            Says who? Heck, why not make it only 51?Report

            • Avatar TheFool in reply to Scott says:

              it is only 51 to pass legislation. It’s _still_ only 51 to pass legislation. There’s _also_ a requirement of 60 votes to bring cloture to the debate, but the way the Senate works nowadays “cloture” has nothing to do with expediting debate and everything to do with actually proceeding to a vote where a mere simple majority is required.Report

          • Exactly. I have wondered for a long time where I missed the boat. I always thought the filibuster was for extreme cases only, and now it’s just assumed that a party has to have 60 votes to pass anything. When exactly did we go from 8% to 70%, anyone know? Was it gradual or sudden? I assume there was a sort of gentlemanly agreement before not to use the filibuster except under special circumstances, and that agreement went out the window along with gentlemen in Congress.Report

          • Avatar Pinky in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

            Over that same period, the length of the average bill increased by something like an order of magnitude. The trend is toward fewer but bigger bills, precisely for the purpose of pushing unpopular items through the process. Earmarks and unrelated amendments are bundled with essential legislation (or at least legislation that’s perceived as essential). There may be more filibusters, but the total amount of legislation passed is steadily increasing.

            Besides, the Senate is doing its job when it sticks its finger in the eye of an activist House or an aggressive President. It’s supposed to be the biggest obstacle in the system. It’s the second-most undemocratic body in government (behind the courts), and it was conceived to be the protector of the individual states.Report

    • Avatar Barry in reply to Scott says:

      “I’m glad we have a system that makes it hard for the gov’t to do too much.”

      I hear this again and again and again and frikkin’ again. But you know what? These checks and balances sorta faaaaaaaaaade away into another dimension when the rich want something.Report

  3. “As LOG often reminds its readers, there are three parties in America: Democrats, Centrists (some with Rs after their names, some with Ds), and Republicans. “

    I would challenge that by saying there are actually few real ‘centrists’ out there. Most of them are actually Independents whose positions on various issues run the spectrum of political thought from libby-lib to Far Right and back. The true ‘Center’ is mostly a mythical place where a few senators like Olympia Snowe live. Most of America isn’t Centrist at all….they are just complicated.Report

    • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

      I agree there are few centrists in the country, but there are a goodly number of them in the Senate and they are holding way too many cards at the present moment. So we have our legislation being decided by a group that essentially represents just about nobody (ideologically) in the country. Fantastico.Report

      • I don’t know that there are too many Centrists in the Senate either. Look at Nelson. He’s basically a mainline Democrat/liberal. He just happens to lean right on abortion. Lieberman has plenty of liberal views but he leans right on national defense.Report

        • Avatar Chris Dierkes in reply to Mike at The Big Stick says:

          Nelson’s not a mainline liberal. Neither’s Lieberman. They are centrists. They are built in opposition (in many ways) to progressives/left.

          The difference would be how say a Max Baucus (a conservative Dem) and Nelson did on health care. Nelson held the whole thing up to his vote, Baucus did not.

          Or if you don’t like Baucus (because he was a chairman of a drafting committee), then say a Jeff Bingaman or Tom Carper. Pretty conservative Dems but they didn’t put their disagreements up to the point of stopping the whole thing.Report

          • I’m actually quite sympathetic to Hamsher, who has long understood libertarian thought processes more than most liberals and is on firmer ground than I think her critics are giving her credit for.

            But in terms of the centrist issue, I think the big thing is to look at the types of concessions they’re primarily seeking. Nelson’s pro-life insistence aside, most of the centrists are seeking concessions that basically just seek to split the difference between doing something and doing nothing or that provide some sort of direct benefit to the centrist’s district. I think one could argue that Nelson’s demands on abortion are principled; but the concessions demanded by the other centrists in this debate largely seem to be devoid of any principles whatsoever.Report

            • I agree about Hamsher, it’s easier to work with people who have principles than to work with political opportunists you can’t trust. I think there is a possibility for libertarians and true liberals to work together — many of the goals are similar, and I think some liberals are realizing that statism is not the way to accomplish the goals. The State is after power and control, not results that help those in need.Report

  4. Avatar greginak says:

    Well there is fail all around. It boggles me the level of anger among progressives about what congress and the Prez did or didn’t do when this asinine system is with us. Having a strong majority just isn’t enough with these rules so we are left with sucking up to Lieberman and Nelson. It seems anybody with a basic understanding of the rules ( in this case Obama and Reid) knew they couldn’t’ just do what they wanted and had to play for a supermajority.

    So the Repub dynamic is to stall and obfuscate, then blame the gov for not doing this or that. Failure works for them…..oh joyous season this is.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to greginak says:

      Be of good cheer; for at least the Republicans, obfuscate as they might, have the cold comfort of their precedent late at night when sleep eludes — the Unitary Executive.

      It would seem Republicans, at least in the Senate, shirk their responsibilities through stalling now, and passing it off to the Executive Branch when they were recently in the majority.

      As much as I wish Democratic Senators had used the filibuster for more then judicial nominations, I would see it dead this political holiday and the work of federal policy begun again. Dem’s won’t use it to stop bad policy, and Republicans won’t not use it for any policy. It’s poison.Report

      • Avatar Art Deco in reply to zic says:

        It is not the responsibility of the political opposition to help the party in power enact its pet programs. The parliamentary rules package governing the Senate is enacted by…the Senate. The size of the supermajority necessary for a cloture vote was reduced ca. 1974 from 2/3 to 3/5. Why not use that 3/5 majority to unload in entirely, along with the other crappy practices (‘holds’ on nominees, &c.)?Report

  5. Avatar E.D. Kain says:

    Chris – I’m all for killing the filibuster. I think it creates inordinate amounts of apathy in our political process, and lets politicians get away with little accountability.Report

  6. Avatar fourthbranch says:

    We argue that modifying the filibuster is far better than eliminating it, for reasons described here:

  7. Avatar agorabum says:

    Is this a feature of the modern Senate, destined to continue into the future, or just a feature of a bankrupt Republican party that can only respond to any issue with tax cuts or deregulation?
    It’s not an institutional problem that Democrats have a wide array of opinions. It seems to be a problem that the Republicans only have one and are now no longer willing to do their job (craft legislation that addresses the issues of America).
    Instead, they present a unified front of obstruction for the purposes of potential electoral gain; an exercise of their power only in the pursuit of more political power. The idea of being a wise representative of the people, selected for his independent wisdom and judgment (i.e. the original intent behind our representative government) seems totally absent from the modern Republican Senator.Report

  8. Avatar Art Deco says:

    The Republican Party is not ‘bankrupt’ for advancing its own programs and interests. If parliamentary rules are impeding them unacceptably, the frigging majority party can change the rules.Report

    • Avatar Scott in reply to Art Deco says:

      True, how many times have the Dems threatened to use reconciliation doing this process?Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to Scott says:

        reconciliation was threatened by some, but the leadership saw it is actually not a possible alternative.

        It would still take a super majority of senators to get rid of the current terrible senate rules. if enough of both parties would support it then it could be changed. if it is just the D’s then they don’t have enough votes.Report

  9. Avatar Scott says:

    “reconciliation was threatened by some, but the leadership saw it is actually not a possible alternative.”

    And you know this to be true because? If they really didn’t think it possible then why did they spend so much time threatening to use it? I guess buying votes was easier.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to Scott says:

      well define how the leadership spent so much time pushing it? the actual leadership did not push it. some bloggers and writers did and a few prominent D pols talked about, but no, the leadership did not spend the last 10 months threatening it.

      have you read up on what reconciliation involves? it is not some easy panacea for getting any bill passed.Report