Democrats would gain 10 Senate seats by eliminating the filibuster

by: Chris Bowers

Wed Jan 06, 2010 at 20:00


A tweet spreading around the twitterverse today:

BREAKING: Democrats Hoping To Take Control Of Congress From Republican Minority In 2010 #p2 #tcot

The Onion tweeted that back in September, and it remains funny because it remains true.  With the 60-vote culture of the Senate, Democrats did not actually take control of the chamber until September 25th, when Robert Byrd was released from the hospital and Paul Kirk was sworn in.  September 25th was the first day when Democrats had 60 functioning members of their Senate caucus.

The chances of Democrats maintaining 60 members of their caucus after 2010 are virtually zero.  Democrats are defending seven of the ten Senate seats where the incumbent party is either losing or tied, and are defending all three of the Senate seats (Colorado, Nevada and North Dakota) where the incumbent party is facing near-certain defeat.  To maintain 60, Democrats need to win all seven of the following "toss-up" campaigns: Arkansas, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  That is a very, very tall order.

Still, there is a simple way that Democrats could net ten Senate seats right now, which would all but guarantee that Democrats actually have a stronger Senate majority in 2011 than they had in 2009: eliminate the filibuster.  If only 50 votes plus Vice President Biden are required to pass legislation in the Senate, then even the (currently realistic) worst-case scenario of a 53-47 Democratic majority in 2011 is three seats better than the current 60-40 majority.

There are two ways to eliminate the filibuster with only 51 votes: through the "nuclear option" or by changing the Senate rules on the first day of the 112th Congress in January, 2011.  (Relevant link is on Congress Matters, which is currently down).

There are several arguments against eliminating the filibuster, which I will quickly address in the extended entry.

Chris Bowers :: Democrats would gain 10 Senate seats by eliminating the filibuster
Quick rebuttals to common arguments in favor of keeping the filibuster:

  1. Democrats eliminating it would be hypocritical. Maybe, but no more hypocritical than Republicans.  The GOP tried to eliminate it, and then proceeded to overuse it when they failed to do so.

    But really, neither Democrats nor Republicans are being hypocritical.  The filibuster is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.  Democrats opposed eliminating the filibuster because it would allow Republicans to pass more legislation, and would eliminate it in order to pass more legislation themselves.  Republicans favored eliminating the filibuster to confirm more nominees, and would oppose eliminating it to prevent Democrats passing more legislation.  In both cases, both parties would be perfectly consistently in their desire to see nominees and legislation more favorable to their ideological viewpoints pass.

  2. It isn't going to happen. Maybe, but then why should I give a shit about Senate elections anymore?  The current incarnation of the 60-vote Senate effectively makes Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, and a couple other Senators de facto President.  These Senators can lie about their positions on important legislation, and not face any repercussions from their colleagues.  If the Democratic Senate caucus has no problem handing over all congressional power to a handful of bad faith Senators, then why the fuck should any Democrat care about any Congressional election at all?

    So, maybe we can tell every Democratic member of Congress to dump the filibuster, or don't expect any help from us in 2010 and beyond.

  3. It is good to have a deliberative" branch of Congress.  Not sure if this is mainly stupid, offensive, or both.  "Deliberation" is not more important than democracy, and the Senate should not be more powerful than the House.

  4. but then Republicans could pass whatever legislation they want when they regian control in D.C.  So what. Apart from John Bolton and the three judges who went down, back when Republicans were in charge there wasn't a single major legislation or a single major nominee that passed through Congressional committee and then failed cloture due to a Democratic filibuster.  Republicans even passed pretty much whatever they wanted when Democrats controlled Congress, and Bush was still President.
Two months ago, I outlined some quick thoughts on how to destroy the filibuster.  If you have ideas on how to pull this off, please post them in the comments.

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Not. Going. To. Happen. (0.00 / 0)
"Still, there is a simple way that Democrats could net ten Senate seats right now, which would all but guarantee that Democrats actually have a stronger Senate majority in 2011 than they had in 2009: eliminate the filibuster."

The Democrats (with whom I used to associate but which, like several single payer doctors have recently done, I have shed like the skin of a snake - and feel free for the first time in years!)don't have the balls to do what the majority of voters want and need - they will never never never go against their puppet masters to overturn the filibuster.

Now, ask me how I really feel.....


the 17th amendment (4.00 / 8)
How did that happen?  How did progressives get 2/3 of a group of appointed senators, responsible only to State legislatures, to pass that amendment?

The State legislatures themselves of course had no reason to love the 17th either, since it decreased their power over national legislation too.

Much tougher things have been done.  


[ Parent ]
Actually it increased their power (0.00 / 0)
Senators careers depended on who won the state legislature and that depended on who drew boundaries after censuses.

Also partisan wars in state legislatures would leave Senate seats vacant for long periods of time, I think there was a case in Delaware where a Senator wasn't seated for four years.

It was in the interest of the Senators to change the Constitution to allow for their direct election, plus the media at the time was 100% in support of it.  


[ Parent ]
No, I don't see this (4.00 / 3)
Appointed Senators wanted to face the electorates?  

And why was the media 100% in support of it?  These aren't random forces of nature, the zeitgeist changed because people made it change.

As I said below, this was a system that lasted over 100 years and 16 other amendments to the constitution.  Clearly some people liked it the way it was.  

Per Wiki:


Reform efforts began as early as 1826, when direct election was first proposed. In the 1870s, voters sent a petition to the House of Representatives for popular election. From 1893 to 1902, the popularity of this idea increased considerably. Each year during that period, a constitutional amendment to elect Senators by popular vote was proposed in Congress, but the Senate resisted greatly.



[ Parent ]
The state legislatures wanted it (0.00 / 0)
Congress only proposed the 17th Amendment because the state legislatures had come close to the number required for a constitutional convention to propose amendments.

Many of the states had moved toward electing Senators anyways.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


[ Parent ]
Yes (4.00 / 4)
Because voters had pushed them to.

You state this like it was some force of nature, or some inevitability.  The State Legislatures picked Senators for over 100 years.  


[ Parent ]
The trend had been going towards direct election (4.00 / 3)
A minority was able to block the Seventeenth Amendment.  While the House could pass the amendment, the Senate would often see it stalled in committee.  New York Republican Chauncey Depew was able to split the Senate votes in favor of direct election by offering an amendment which would have also given Congress the power to enforce uniform voter qualifications and registration, thus peeling off Southern Senators who feared ceding power to blacks and Republicans.

But there were scandals which created direct pressure on direct election.  William Clark Sr. won a Montana seat via bribery and Delaware went without a Senator in part because of Edward Addicks attempting to do the same.  Around the time that the Senate passed the Seventeenth Amendment, it was contemplating the expulsion of William Lorimer of Illinois.  One could say that, instead of a "crisistunity", real reform is helped along by a "scandaltunity".

The corporate trusts who opposed direct election were able to manipulate the existing rules to block the amendment for some time through Senators who were actual members of those trusts.  The other main source of opposition to the Seventeenth Amendment came from the northeast, perhaps because that is where there were the most entrenched party bosses, who also benefited from the status quo that gave them influence over who would go to the Senate.

The Progressive movement pushed for it, state legislatures found it as a way around deadlocks and had been moving in that direction individually, and scandals were giving people a reason to believe that the system wasn't working.  Direct election of the Senate may have happened earlier if it hadn't been held off by the efforts of a minority, but I think it was going to happen sooner or later, just like women's suffrage.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


[ Parent ]
As I said (4.00 / 2)
The "trend" was not some inevitable thing IMO.  It was made to happen by activists who organized and made noise.  The House passed a direct election amendment at least 4 times before the Senate finally caved.  29 States had already adopted direct election of their Senators via statewide referenda by the time the thing passed, so a large portion of the Senate was already "elected."  But all this was fought every step of the way by conservatives.

Even now conservatives want to repeal the 17th.  The National Review even published an op-ed in 2004 calling for its repeal, and so did some idiot libertarian.  


[ Parent ]
No, it's not and (0.00 / 0)
in answer to Chris's follow-up question: No, you shouldn't care about Senate elections and you certainly shouldn't care about House elections.  Considering that the House is poised to essentially rubber-stamp the Senate health care bill and Pro-choice and pro-public option "progressive" reps are about to roll over in a stunning show of weakness, you could vote for an army of avowed socialists and it wouldn't make much difference. Until we create an outside-DC progressive movement that is willing, ready and able to strike fear into the hearts of elected officials, it's all band-aids on a gunshot wound.

[ Parent ]
Raise awareness of the filibuster as an issue by including it in a set of reforms (4.00 / 5)
Package removal of the filibuster with a host of other process-oriented reforms.  Given that the Constitution bars any state from being deprived of its equal representation (Article V stating that "that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate"), abolishing the Senate seems unlikely, but there is a slate of process-oriented reforms that progressives could push forward.

Universal voter registration.  Replacing the Electoral College with the popular vote.  More democratic procedures in replacing vacancies in the Senate.  Congressional representation for Washington D.C.  Reforming the election calendar.

I could come up with a few other ideas worthy of discussion.  Maybe a Cheney-inspired amendment to more formally lock down the duties and responsibilities of the vice-president.  VP, Attorney General, and Treasury Secretary as independently elected offices so as to dilute the power of the executive branch.  Allowing for state ratification of constitutional amendments by initiative.  Bump up representation to three Senators per state so that there is a Senate election every cycle for voters to use to send signals to Washington.

Since it seems unlikely that we will get strong progressive legislation during Obama's first term, perhaps the left should look more at making procedural rather than policy advances, possibly by taking advantage of whatever populist fervor exists in the Tea Party movement.


Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


I'm skeptical of the independently elected offices thing (4.00 / 1)
but otherwise this seems like a decent idea. I think having simply having a lot more Senators might also make the filibuster/hold situation even more untenable and lead to its earlier demise, but that's just speculation and could backfire.

The other thing I would definitely include is (effective) public financing of congressional campaigns. That, along with abolishing the filibuster, seems like the two Big Ones. If either one of those gets passed, I'm pretty sure policy outcomes take a dramatic turn for the better.

Which, of course, makes me suspect that it's going to take something of a miracle to make either of them happen.


[ Parent ]
It's just one idea out of several (4.00 / 1)
I toss it out there because I like to think outside the box and people complain about the president having too much power concentrated in one person.

I envision a list of ten or so reforms and being ecstatic if three of them actually pass.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


[ Parent ]
The Operative Word (4.00 / 3)
in your post is "culture". I really like how you called it out for what it is: "a 60-vote culture".

I think a good framing would be: (4.00 / 4)
What the filibuster does is it gives every Senator a veto. When the President vetoes legislation, Congress needs 2/3rds majorities to override it. When a Senator - any Senator - filibusters vetoes legislation, the Senate needs a 3/5s majority to override it. Really, besides the different name and somewhat different numbers, the veto and the filibuster are exactly the same thing. The argument should be made that veto power belongs with the President and only with the President, that Senators do not deserve to have it, and that giving each of 100 separate Senators veto power is foolish in any case.

I think this would be good framing because, (a), it has the merit of being true - quite true - and not even by mere analogy, but really, asides from terminology, the two situations are essentially equivalent; and (b), because it clarifies (would clarify) the issue for people radically. When you look at it in these terms, it immediately looks every bit as patently absurd on its face as it, in fact, is.


Actually (4.00 / 2)
I don't see why the President should have a veto over legislation generally.  Perhaps over things that impact the  branch balance of powers (though I think fears of a dominant legislative branch are sort of bizarre, what exact ill would come of it?), but why should he have a veto over the budget?   Or legalizing gay marriage?  Or health reform?


[ Parent ]
Well (4.00 / 1)
you could say "not even the President deserves to have veto power" is a more extreme form of basically the same argument.

[ Parent ]
It used to have a purpose (4.00 / 3)
The veto wasn't designed to give the president the kind of power it gives today - because like the rest of the Constitution, it was not designed with parties in mind.  

The purpose was to allow the president to stop a bill, require the president to give the reasons for any objection, and thus force Congress to revisit the issue.  That is, it was designed to promote deliberation.

Of course, it does nothing of the sort today, which suggests it would be worth asking whether it makes sense any more.  

The same could be said about many features of the Constitution, including bicameralism.  

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.


[ Parent ]
Also, in terms of short term politics, (4.00 / 3)
you could just start using the word "veto" all the time whenever you would have used the word "filibuster" instead. Tell the Republicans to stop vetoing healthcare. Tell Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to stop vetoing the public option. Tell them to stop vetoing federal appointees. Tell them to stop vetoing every God-damned thing.

If a President made a habit of routinely vetoing every single piece of proposed legislation, such a President would fast become very unpopular. (This basically happened to George W. Bush). But Senators get to do it with impunity.


[ Parent ]
Here's some framing for you (0.00 / 0)
Compare it to the liberum veto of the Polish Sejm, which required unanimity.  This, of course, led to Prussia and Russia bribing the nobles of the Sejm to prevent anything useful from happening.  The veto is one reason why Poland disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795.

And, as long as you don't draw attention to it, you can make subtle use of the ethnic stereotype that Polish are stupid and transfer that connotation to the filibuster in the minds of some.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


[ Parent ]
uhmmm... (0.00 / 0)
I think you just did draw attention to it.

They call me Clem, Clem Guttata. Come visit wild, wonderful West Virginia Blue

[ Parent ]
I'm sceptical (0.00 / 0)
Not only is framing based on Poles being stupid risky to say the least, and likely unproductive, but any framing requiring you to explain the Sejm and the Partitions of Poland to the average voter is probably a little too complex.

Forgotten Countries - a foreign policy-focused blog

[ Parent ]
It can be explained in a sentence or two (0.00 / 0)
Poland had a legislative body (sort of) which allowed any member to veto, leading to the country being broken up and disappearing.

The framing isn't based on Poles being stupid.  That's just an added bonus that might affect some people.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both


[ Parent ]
Yeah... (0.00 / 0)
I remember reading about this in history, and the connection floated through my thoughts as well, but I highly doubt most people are going to know about it or care much. If they did we might not be in such a predicament as we are.

Basically, it's a technocratic argument, and we have a lot of those already. If we want to generate mass sentiment against the filibuster veto it's everyone else we need to convince, not the technocrats. I think the veto framing could be kind of a visceral one where people feel like Senators are usurping the President's power and that gives rise to a lot of indignation -- obviously this isn't even remotely guaranteed, but it seems worth a shot. Even if it doesn't, it still has the great advantage that most people actually know what the fuck a veto is, whereas a filibuster is just some arcane thing that Senators do, so merely as an element of communications policy it seems good.


[ Parent ]
Pledges a la Norquist (4.00 / 1)
What about getting Senate candidates to go on record via some kind of pledge they could sign that if they get the chance, they will vote to eliminate the filibuster, and that they will never support a filibuster of anything their party is doing.

I was dubious of these pledges, but they seemed to be powerful enough to fuck over California when push came to shove in the budget fight.  

Of course, this is a long term strategy for killing the filibuster in 10 or 20 years.  I don't know how to get the current crew to do it this year.


I sent that quote to you, Chris ... (4.00 / 1)
... an acknowledgment would have been appreciated.

I definitely agree that the Democrats should eradicate the filibuster. They don't use it when they're in the minority, so it only benefits the Republicans.

Kill it.

Carolyn Kay
MakeThemAccountable.com

Carolyn Kay
MakeThemAccountable.com


Possible Compromise: Eliminate the filibuster on legislation only (0.00 / 0)
I absolutely agree that the filibuster is a ridiculous idea when it comes to legislation. After all, legislation has to go through the House and be signed by the President; forty Senators should not have the power to impede the will of the rest of the legislative and executive branches.

However, there's an argument to be made that the filibuster serves as an extra check on the power of the president in the case of nominations, as they only have to be confirmed by the Senate. On the other hand, the minority party's ability to hold up nominations has taken its toll on the functioning of the executive and judicial branches.

Aside from nominations, treaties and impeachment are (as far as I know) the only business up to the sole discretion of the Senate, and of course the Constitution specifies as 2/3 requirement for those votes.


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