How do you solve a problem like the Senate?
The filibuster has become a normalized tool of political combat. There have been more filibusters employed in any given single year since the 1980s than took place throughout all of the nineteenth century. The filibuster is no longer reserved for high-priority measures such as civil rights; during the past three decades, political parties have relied on the filibuster, and the threat of a filibuster, to stifle various kinds of legislation. The political scientist Eric Schickler found that there was an explosion of obstructionism that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s as senators used filibusters as well as other comparable procedures, including holds (a procedure where a particular senator can anonymously stop a bill from being considered) or the post-cloture filibuster (an invention of Alabama Senator James Allen, who opposed filibuster reform in 1975, through which a senator requires roll calls on amendments and procedural motions after successful cloture).
What happened? There was no single reason for filibuster-mania. Most readily apparent is the political realignment of the parties: The Senate of old counteracted party polarization, as the chamber was inhabited by legislators on the left, right, and center who were willing to defy the party leadership and enter bipartisan coalitions. Not any more. Fewer centrists meant that party leaders were more willing to use any tactic possible to block their adversaries. And so partisanship is stronger than it has ever been in the Senate. Demographic changes have diminished the number of centrist voters in either party: Southerners moved into the Republican Party and liberal northeastern Republicans vanished. The number of senators who could be identified as centrists, according to Binder, declined from over 30 percent in 1969 to under 10 percent by the middle of the 1990s.
The phenomenon did not, it should be said, impact both parties equally. The Democrats remain more divided, with a stronger moderate cohort of legislators who continually push their party to respond to the conservative revolution in American politics by mimicking, rather than opposing, what the right has had to say. In an April 2009 article in The New Republic, Jonathan Chait contrasts the difference between Republicans with united government under George W. Bush and Democrats with united government under Barack Obama. Democratic moderates like Senate Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad, Chait writes, were willing to break with the President and the party within weeks of the inauguration; Republicans didn’t break with Bush until the end of his second term, and then only because he was deeply unpopular.
Binder and her co-author Christopher Smith identified a second reason–that senators started to receive greater political credit from interest groups and constituents for using these tactics to pursue their objectives. And a third reason, ironically, was the reform of the cloture rule itself: The reduction from 67 to 60 encouraged senators to become more comfortable using the obstructionist tactic because it was seen as easier to end and thus less draconian. Fourth, the “track system” promoted by Senate Majority Whip Robert Byrd in the 1970s allowed the Senate to conduct business on other legislation even when a filibuster was technically taking place on one particular matter. Because senators did not have to actually take to the floor in dramatic Jefferson Smith-like confrontations–where they read from Bibles and phonebooks as America waited for Congress to act–but merely threaten to do so, the filibuster became less risky politically.
Remarkably, the scholarly literature on all this is surprisingly scant, especially when compared with that which exists about the House of Representatives. There is an enormous body of literature on the role of parties and partisan polarization in the House, where formal rules that privilege the majority make it easier for scholars to evaluate the impact of parties; there is much less research on the Senate, where parties don’t command as much formal power, so that measuring partisan influence has been more difficult. Often parties influence the floor through informal pressure and incentives that are not easy to see. In this context, Why Not Parties?, edited by political scientists Nathan Monroe, Jason Roberts, and David Rohde, provides a useful update.
The contributors to this volume of 11 essays and an introduction, all written by congressional studies specialists, bring together some of the most critical recent scholarship on the Senate. Kathryn Pearson shows how party leaders privilege members who raised money for the party’s congressional campaign committees by forming leadership PACs. Pearson also finds that Senate leaders relied on their power (which pales in comparison to the House), such as using earmarks in conference committee to reward loyalty and anonymously blocking the legislation of senators who depart from the party line. Democrats and Republicans have even altered their committee assignment procedures to create more opportunities for the leadership to circumvent seniority and provide choice assignments to key players. “Senate leaders’ carrots and sticks are limited,” Pearson writes. “Senate norms are slowly changing, and senators have shown increasing willingness to cede power to their leaders. The chamber’s membership is also changing, and partisans are replacing the ‘good ol’ boys.’”
In their examination of Senate roll-call votes between 1991 and 2002, Jason Roberts and Lauren Cohen Bell find that senators tend to vote with their party unless they are dealing with legislation that is of particular importance to an interest group that threatens to highlight their vote in annual publications. Chris Den Hartog and Nathan Monroe look at how Senate leaders use the technical procedure of motions to table as a strategy through which to kill unwanted amendments from being considered on the floor. The authors recount Senator Jesse Helms, speaking of an amendment of his own that was tabled in 1989, saying that “the Helms amendment, which will apparently be tabled, is pretty much in a fix that a rustler would get into if he was hung and thereafter given a fair trial.”
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