The Beginning of the End of the Filibuster
Today was such an important day in Senatorial (and in fact, American) history, that it warranted the first post in eleven months. Though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has long earned the respect of his peers for keeping his party together and being adept at using parliamentary procedure in the Senate, today Reid solidified his place in history by changing the rules of the Senate. The abusive use of the filibuster has marred the Senate for much of Bush’s second term, but its exponential rise under the Obama presidency has made its continued place in the system untenable. Filibuster reform advocates, such as Tom Harkin (D-IA), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), petitioned the leader to change Senate rules at the opening of the 113th Congress. The changes on the first day of the session, and succeeding agreements that intermittently pop up, hardly affected legislative output, and showed the weakness of “gentleman’s agreements.”
Unlike the highly institutionalized House of Representatives, the Senate does not operate based on lengthy and clearly defined rules, but instead, operates on precedent and cultural norms. Essentially, the House of mechanistic and routinized, a legislative body created to empower the will of the people as seen in the majority of representatives. In contrast, the Senate is a deliberative body, created to consider the validity of legislation in the other chamber, advise presidents on their appointments, and ratify treaties. Further, the Senate runs on comity and interpersonal relationships between members, which is supposed to encourage statesmanship, bipartisanship, and consensus, beyond what a pure majoritarian body encourages. The Senate, unlike the House, is a minority controlled body: not in leadership or committee chairs, but in deference to the minorities prerogatives and input into the processes the body propounds. This system has worked fine over the years, as long as members of both chambers understand their roles; Representatives advocate for the will of the majority of voters through affirmative government policy, while Senators rise above quibbles, to think about the effect of the policies would be on the country, and to refine it to the most moderate, median-voter-pleasing form.
But as the party system changed from the fifth to the sixth, and liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats switched parties, bipartisanship as a practice (and concept) waned. Paired with social migration, in which voters tend to live around those they agree with on ideology, and party primary changes, which exclude general voters in favor of party loyalists, you end up with legislators who do not understand their partisan counterparts, and worse, do not even seek to try and bridge that gap. Legislators who work constructively to build consensus are often demonized on both sides, leading to the further erosion of moderate legislators in Congress (see the primary losses of Senators Murkowski (R-AK), Lugar (R-IN), Spector (R & D-PA), and Bennett (R-UT), and Representative Castle (R-DE); and retirements of Senators Voinovich (R-OH), Hagel (R-NE), Bayh (D-IN), Snowe (R-ME), Nelson (D-NE), Dorgan (D-ND), and Bond (R-MO)). For the Senate to work in its 20th century manner, it would have to be filled with members who want to work with one another to create necessary public policy. The increasing polarity is only one half of the equation; the other half is the type of people joining the Senate more an more often. These people cater to party bases as the primary objective; not policy. General elections have become secondary to primary elections. Finally, the legislators that wield the most influence, financially and organizationally, are becoming more and more clustered on the extremes of demagoguery. Demagogues do not want to legislate; they want to instigate. A perfect storm occurs when demagogues with anti-government philosophies gain power, which is the case for 12 (or 13 if you include Chuck Grassley) of the 45 Republicans currently seated in the Senate.
What is startling is how the parties are changing every successive election, with less and less policy driven individuals being elected into the Senate. Of the demagogues I enumerated above, over half of them have entered the Senate after the 2010 election. Is it due to the anger against Obamacare during that election? One can only hope, though the trend of GOP party purity (whose purity?) does not seem to be going anywhere.
So today, after being so apprehensive as to indicate this would never happen, Harry Reid overruled the presiding officer (as advised by the parliamentarian), to change the cloture rule on executive appointments (except those to the Supreme Court) from a 60 vote threshold to a simple 51 vote majority. Chuck Grassley’s distorted talk about packing the courts (by offering three judges to a three judge vacancy) will now actually lead to packing the courts. Obama can nominate nearly 100 judges to different federal courts, and that number is likely to climb to 150 by the end of his presidency (creating a 3D to 2R national balance on the courts). This change in the cloture rule, so that the 60 votes only applies to legislation and SC nominees, has ushered in a new era in Senate history. This is the beginning of majority rule in the Senate.
What of the Democrats? Are they blameless in this predicament? No, but false analogies often blame both sides equally for what one side is more responsible for. The current problem of government productivity is because of Republican base pandering and irrational hatred of the president. But Democrats are equally responsible for the quality of legislation deteriorating, and for public policy to take a back seat to political processes. I will not address this point too much within this post, but essentially, the administration of government is becoming increasingly inefficient, poorly targeted, cumbersome, and misguided. A new paradigm of policymaking must be created that is not based on logrolling, pork-barreling, particularized benefits, or ideological purity. The new system must revolve around pragmatism in making government work for the people, which only the Democratic party is in a position to achieve (therefore it is their responsibility).
But back to the question of blame and solutions. Senate Democrats have been slow to understand the depths of the body’s problems, and therefore, deserve some blame for it getting this bad. Take for example Carl Levin of Michigan. He, along with Senators Pryor and Manchin (both conservatives), voted against the change today. His rationale was that it sets a horrible precedent for future Senatorial rules changes, and intimated there may have been another way. His idealistic view is not ingrained in reality, and his stature within the party has carried much water on this issue. He himself probably deferred action on filibusters by working with Senators McCain, Lieberman (when he was around), Snowe, and Graham to create agreements that were not adhered to. It is old guard Democrats like Levin who are ill-equipped to successfully legislate in the current Sixth Party System. Their memories of the better days inhibit their ability to diagnose the issues and solutions to contemporary problems. Ideology does not matter much in this discussion; what matters is understanding changes in society and party dynamics that warrant changes in institutions. Otherwise, our governing institutions simply look illegitimate and out of touch, like the outgoing senator.
Though the filibuster is still around on the more important legislative votes, Abe Lincoln would say a house divided cannot stand, and Senate with domain specific rules surely cannot either. This means soon the Senate will completely remove the filibuster from use on all matters. Every course of action will require just the majority caucus to push through legislation. One can argue this is a sad day for deliberation, but since that has largely disappeared anyway as a product of the low quality people elected to this branch (the House included) nowadays, responsible party government will have to take over. There are definite downsides to this approach, which means party voters need to hold their members more accountable than they have so far, which we have no reason to believe will happen. Essentially, the filibuster’s removal will not save the entire system, nor will it destroy it. But it does allow the legislative process to fulfill its duties more readily, which inherently benefits the causes of affirmative government policy over those who wish to destroy, or obstruct, the government. Will there be examples of Republicans using this change to their favor, on perhaps horrifying draconian measures? Yes, but there is always bad with the good.
This is a step in the right direction. Chamber differences will still create a system in which the bodies negotiate with one another, and further, the checks and balances in the system will keep radical change from happening too quickly. But at least change can happen, now that the filibuster is on its last legs.
Posted on November 21, 2013, in History, Parliamentary Procedure, Party System and tagged American history, Barack Obama, Carl Levin, Chuck Grassley, Filibuster, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, political change, Senate, Sixth Party System. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.