Issue #14, Fall 2009


How do you solve a problem like the Senate?

But it is at least possible to conceive of change. As the nation grapples with an economic crisis unlike any we have seen for at least three decades, the procedural regime that we have created will be tested like never before. If Senate Republicans decide to take a dramatic stand against Obama’s proposals (at least those proposals that are left out of the budget reconciliation process), it would be possible that interest groups struggling to pass much-needed legislation–such as organized labor or environmental organizations–could make filibuster reform a top priority. They could bring pressure on legislators as the 2010 midterms approach.

This is exactly what happened in the 1950s and 1960s, when Southern Democrats used the filibuster to block the prime objective of liberals, civil rights. One can almost imagine MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann channeling Roger Mudd and beginning his nightly news show with a clock showing how long Senate Republicans had filibustered a second round of economic stimulus legislation as the government released reports on falling home prices and rising unemployment. Even the possibility of reform could be enough to cause Senate Republicans to back down from using the filibuster device on each and every bill.

The Administration learned during its first few months that the institutional design of the Senate has created an environment where the minority can be a powerful opposition force, and united Republicans are particularly effective at using this design against a more divided Democratic Party. While it is true that Democrats will one day be in the minority again, it is worth it for them to think about whether Americans of either party are happy with the kind of Senate that they have had since the late 1980s, an institution where it takes 60 votes to obtain passage of almost any kind of legislation. This is anti-majoritarianism on steroids. Democrats might want to consider taking the risk of pushing for a return to the more majoritarian system we had before the 1990s, one where the filibuster was a powerful tool but limited in use–perhaps by allowing more kinds of legislation to be handled under the reconciliation process–in exchange for accepting the realistic possibility that one day they will be on the losing end of this process.

Democrats can’t afford to ignore how the current legislative process adversely impacts policymaking. Despite the dramatic results of the 2008 election and the eviscerated condition of the GOP, as well as public opinion that reveals support for most of the key Democratic initiatives, Obama had little choice but to compromise with a handful of centrists on the size of his economic stimulus bill and he has not had smooth sailing for his health care or his energy plans. The decision to use reconciliation for health care shows that Democrats are prepared to take bolder procedural action. The resolution of Al Franken’s election to the Senate, which brought Democrats to 60 votes, also slightly diminished the pressure to use reconciliation. But reconciliation can’t be used all the time and for every policy. Democrats, and Republicans, will have to find a way to restore some modicum of majoritarian influence to the Senate to begin revitalizing the decision-making capacity of Congress and to diminish the sense of urgency for using more drastic options–from reconciliation to executive power–to handle the nation’s problems.


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Issue #14, Fall 2009
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Richard H. Serlin:

Excellent article.

If I might add another key reason for Democrats to end the filibuster with rulings from the chair:

The great good the Democrats would do with the filibuster eliminated –“€“ things like universal health care, or perhaps someday Medicare for all, free four years of college (we've been stuck at free education only up to high school for over 100 years, while the amount of education necessary to be a highly productive nation has skyrocketed in that time), and much more –“€“ once enacted, and people saw the truth of how good they were, as opposed to the Republican propaganda, would be permanent. The Republicans would never dare get rid of them, and if they did, it would be very temporary. Next election, the Republicans would be decimated, and the programs would be easily restored. A good example is Medicare (universal single-payer health insurance, like in Canada and France, for our seniors). The Republicans, lead by Ronald Reagan, fought it tooth and nail in 1965, claiming it would lead to socialism, or worse. Today they would not dare even mention repealing it, because once it was actually passed, people saw how much better it really made their lives, and loved it.

By contrast, the things the Republicans would push through with 51 votes would usually be bad, or horrible, to the vast majority, and so once people actually experienced them, and saw firsthand how the lies about them were really false, like how they only helped the rich, they would not last. The public would vote for change, and they would be repealed. AND the Republicans would be revealed. People would see firsthand that lies like trickle down were false, a devastating fairy tale, eventually –“€“ for some things they would see very quickly, for others over more time.

So, this is an extremely strong reason why Democrats should support elimination of the filibuster. Basically, or largely, what they would do would be permanent, like Medicare, unemployment insurance, free public schooling, but what the Republicans would do would only be temporary.

For more on this, please see:

Sep 18, 2009, 11:20 PM

I think that assumes too much natural appeal for progressive initiatives (will people love other programs like the seniors love their medicare?) and more importantly too much responsiveness on the part of the electorate. If trickle down was so self-evidently bunk to everyone, wouldn't it have been discredited years ago? Middle class wages have been stagnating for decades, after all.

Sep 29, 2009, 11:24 AM

jp: really, try to engage your brain before your pen.

Richard: This is an excellent point: if they are successful, so be it, the nation is better off; if not, they had their chance. Why should the left be afraid of this point?

Dec 17, 2009, 9:09 AM

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