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More nonsense from opponents of filibuster reform

REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Sens. Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid holding a Thursday press conference following the filibuster rule change.

As you know, the U.S. Senate Thursday adopted what the New York Times called “the most fundamental alteration of its rules in more than a generation,” banning the use of the filibuster to block confirmation of any presidential appointees other than nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to me at least, the change doesn’t go far enough, but is a very significant breakthrough for the quaint notion of majority rule.

Statements of outrage by by Senate Republicans over what the Democrats had just done and by Democrats over what the Republicans have done to make them do it were hilarious in their bipartisan hypocrisy. There are a few serious filibuster reformers (Tom Harkin of Iowa, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, all Democrats) who have been pushing for something like this — and more — for years, even when their party did not stand to be the immediate beneficiaries.

But the majority of senators — certainly including the current leaders of both caucuses, Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell — have been switching their fundamental position on filibusters regularly, depending on which party stood to benefit from changing the rules.

I’ve written about filibuster history and origins before, so unless you are interested enough to click the link 10 words back, allow me to just summarize a few points that contradict a great deal of the nonsense usually uttered by opponents of filibuster reform.

Notwithstanding the constant invocations of the Founding Fathers by opponents of filibuster reform, the filibuster has nothing to do with the Founding Fathers. It isn’t in the U.S. Constitution. The Framers never endorsed it, never heard of it, never thought of it. In the early days of the Senate (when many of the Framers were actually serving in Congress) there was no such thing. The Senate never affirmatively decided to permit filibusters, but in the absence of a rule (such as the House has) to force a vote on final passage of a bill, opportunistic senators came up with the tactic.

The filibuster has nothing to do with the sacred principle of “majority rule.” It is the opposite. It prevents a majority of the Senate from passing a bill or confirming an appointment unless it is a supermajority of at least 60 members.

Notwithstanding the constant silly claim that the filibuster is synonymous with “full debate” of matters before the Senate, it has almost nothing to do with debate. In fact, in recent decades and for efficiency’s sake, the Senate practice is that when someone notifies the Senate of his intent to filibuster a matter, the Senate usually stops debating the matter entirely and goes on to other business unless the sponsors of the matter know that they can muster a supermajority to force a vote.

We still have the filibuster. Thursday’s “nuclear option” action doesn’t bar the use of the filibuster to prevent a vote on legislation, nor on confirmation of Supreme Court nominees (although that part seems extremely likely to change). It would be OK with me if the new principle, let’s call it “majority rule” until we can come with a catchier name, was applied to the passage of legislation. And bear in mind that if it was, the the Framers actual plan for deterring unwise or hasty action — you know, the plan that requires a bill to be separately passed by majorities in two different houses of Congress, elected on different schedules, and then signed by the president, elected on yet another schedule — would still be in effect and the United States would still stand out among the democracies of the world as having perhaps the largest number of “checks and balances” which make it perhaps the hardest country in the democratic world to enact a law.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/22/2013 - 11:41 am.


    My biggest objection has to do with the timing of the rule. If both parties had agreed upon a rule change that would take place after the next election, then they could fairly say that this wasn’t a power grab. Doing it now, for short range benefits doesn’t say anything good about Harry Reid.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/22/2013 - 12:08 pm.

      Nice Republican strategy

      Use the filibustero (Spanish for ‘pirate’) now when it can cripple Obama’s ability to achieve anything as an executive, then outlaw it when as a result the Republicans regain the presidency.
      It’s a hope, anyway. About all the party of No has these days.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/22/2013 - 01:34 pm.

      this was a power grab…

      …but of a power that legitimately belonged to the majority. Doesn’t anyone think the Republicans would have agreed to some change in the rule for the next cycle before they found out if they would have the majority? Here’s a benefit for the ACA haters: they want that woman (can’t remember the spelling) in charge of the department responsible for implementing the ACA to resign. How could the dems get rid of her knowing that the Republicans would never agree to any reasonable replacement. They have gotten rid of this rule 6 years ago and jammed through a single-payer nationalized health plan back when they had the votes. This was the only reasonable response to the unreasonable actions of the Republicans.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/22/2013 - 11:45 am.

    Nonesense, indeed

    Nicely done, Eric. The framers’ original plan certainly seems to me, having taught American history and government many times, sufficiently loaded with safeguards to prevent “hasty action.”

  3. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 11/22/2013 - 12:49 pm.


    Eric, thank you. I think most of us–and probably most who follow governmental news and politics–are relieved that a major step toward relieving gridlock has been taken now. When the conservatives–teapartiers–are bent on doing everything possible to stop any Democratic measures from going forward, to defeating Obama’s programs in any way possible, measures must be taken to untangle our system to get something done.
    Since 2008, the only consistent “program” of the republicans has been to destroy Obama–not to do anything for the good of America.
    I do hope voters are paying attention to all of this and remember it when we elect congress again.

  4. Submitted by Lance Groth on 11/22/2013 - 01:07 pm.

    About time

    The president should get his appointees, as long as they pass a basic sniff test, and the change should apply to Supreme Court nominees as well. As they say, “elections have consequences”.

    If the repubs had shown the least inclination to act as governing partners in the “loyal opposition” sense, I might have a shred of sympathy for them, but they have done nothing but try to block every single thing Obama has tried to do, up to and including holding the entire country hostage in order to score petty political points. They have earned the sobriquet “Party of No”, and this change is long overdue.

    And no I won’t gripe when Dems are the Senate minority. The change is as it should be.

  5. Submitted by jody rooney on 11/22/2013 - 01:10 pm.

    It is about time

    That was a pretty useless rule.

  6. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 11/22/2013 - 01:41 pm.

    Surely they’re not being hypocritical!

    If the Repubs are serious in their outrage over this violation of the Founding Fathers’ intentions, I’m sure they will quickly reinstate this filibuster when they regain the majority in the Senate.

  7. Submitted by jody rooney on 11/22/2013 - 03:20 pm.

    It is about time

    That was a pretty useless rule.

  8. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 11/22/2013 - 03:38 pm.

    If they Republicans are such staunch believers

    …in the filibuster, then as Kos suggests on, the Republicans should quickly step up and implement a filibuster in the House.

    I hear crickets.

  9. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/22/2013 - 04:02 pm.

    No, This Really Is Shocking

    Harry Reid and the Democrats actually acted with conviction.

    Now go one better and restore the filibuster rules to require actually taking to the Senate floor and talking for hours on end.

  10. Submitted by jason myron on 11/22/2013 - 04:35 pm.


    I’m sick to death of the Republicans being outraged about everything. I’ve encountered screaming toddlers in the toy aisle at Target that show more maturity than the miscreants that infest the GOP.

  11. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/22/2013 - 10:48 pm.

    Political expediency

    I don’t have a strong opinion about filibuster – there are positives and negatives here. What I do have a strong opinion about is political propaganda. Obama, Biden, Reid, and, I am sure, every other democrat in the Senate were all strongly supporting filibuster when they were a minority party. Now they all changed their tune – just in time to give people something else to talk about but Obamacare. And when such a blatant partisanship happens, one should not think about what is being changed but why and by whom. So even if one may believe that filibuster is bad, changing it now is worse.

    And please, stop blaming republicans – nothing could be worse that attacks on Bush. Do people have so short memories? Democrats still try to blame everything on Bush… How come I do not hear now that Obama lied, people lost their health insurance? And if Bush was repeating what his intelligence was saying about Iraq, Obama was stating things about his own signature health care law…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/23/2013 - 10:01 am.


      There’s a difference between an oversimplification (people may in fact have their policies cancelled, but that was happening long before the ACA, so that’s not the main cause)
      outright fabrication (lie):
      Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
      If I wanted to be snarky I’d say that Bush II had no intelligence, and let you sort it out.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/23/2013 - 11:02 am.

      to which one might add

      Obama’s misstatements were to promote a program that will save many thousands of lives through greater access to health care.
      Bush’s -cost- many thousands of lives, both directly and by the shifting of resources from domestic needs to warfare.
      The ACA has already been accompanied by a reduction in health care costs as well as greater access.

  12. Submitted by Paul Linnee on 11/23/2013 - 01:38 pm.

    If filibuster is so important, why doesn’t the state have the ru

    If, as is alleged by those who support the idea of preserving ‘minority rights’ via the filibuster in the Senate are true to their beliefs, why haven’t some, many or all of the States included such a rule in their constitutions or State Senate rules?

    49 of the 50 states have some version of a Senate, with fewer members elected from larger districts than their other house. Each of those states has a Constitution, and each state has a procedure for amending their constitution. As we saw last year, amending the MN Constitution is far easier than amending the U.S. Constitution. I know the Minnesota Senate has no such rule, and I wonder about the other 48 states?

    After all, of all the laws enacted and enforced in the USA, it is my view that the vast majority of those laws that have the most day to day impact on Americans are those passed by State legislatures, so if such a filibuster rule truly protected rights of ‘minorities’ ( and not just those politicos in a lesser number in the respective Senates), why aren’t there more states with them?

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