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Tuesday, May 10, 2005


(I am way too proud of that subject, cause it's really not actually funny)

In honor of the Dems great 25 hour filibuster in front of the Science Center (I'm sure it'll be in tomorrow's Crimson, you can check out updates on demapples), a few thoughts.

First, a video clip from 1994 from CBS news on the filibuster to give some context.

As Jamal and I have previously discussed and eventually agreed, neither side in this fight is really in the right. What the Dems did today and yesterday, while in support of what I think are overly obstructionist efforts, do show exactly what the filibuster SHOULD BE: an act of public defiance that subjects the individual to public scrutiny and pressure, allowing the fate of the issue to be decided in the realm of public opinion. I don't know enough about the Senate to know how to get it back to that, but as you learn in the CBS clip, it's really gotten out of hand.


At 9:48 AM, Blogger C. G. said...

Here's my concern: for progressively minded individuals who want to change the status quo, isn't the filibuster just another procedural roadblock? Though I can't back this up with specific facts, it's been my understanding that the filibuster has been primarily the tool of anti-progressive elements who used to to block civil rights legislation and even gun control law (a story about using submachine guns to hunt comes to mind).

While the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington image is romantic and makes us all proud ot be American, in practice is the filibuster a tool that helps the left make progress or an unneeded extra check in an already sluggish system of checks and balances?

Aren't there a number of other ways to bring down public scrutiny? Does the filibuster really give us much more bang for our buck?

At 4:39 PM, Blogger kavulla said...

I suppose it should be unsurprising that the debate over the filibuster has turned into something crassly partisan, but it's nonetheless interesting to explore not only the history of the filibuster -- conceived accidentally when an early Senate rules change expunged the 'motion to previous question' from the rulebook -- but also the history of what's being called the "nuclear option" which has been threatened on three previous occasions, most recently by none other than Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WV, who is now a leading spokesman (gasp!) against such a rules change. I wonder how seriously politicians on either side are taking themselves when they attempt grandiose speeches about the meaning and history of the filibuster, something that's practically never been that admirable (the most notable uses of it being to block a civil rights bill and to enforce a ridiculously harsh neutrality in WWI that, everyone now seems to agree, prolonged the war).

Also: it's pretty amusing to see the Harvard Dems' representation of the filibuster. They seem to think a filibuster has something to do with extending debating, or making a point. But as anyone who has watched a filibuster unfold on the Senate floor (or anyone who has watched that CBS newsclip) knows, the modern filibuster has nothing to do with debate at all. Someone merely objects to a unanimous consent request, threatens to talk down a motion to proceed, and then awaits the filing of a cloture motion - requiring a dozen - and a vote on the motion (requiring 3/5s, or 60 votes). The Dems make it seem that by taking away the filibuster, the Senate would take away an outlet by which to debate and attempt to convince others -- this is total farce.

For those wishing for some needed gravity in their intellectual discussions about the meaning of the filibuster: http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlpp/Gold_Gupta_JLPP_article.pdf

At 12:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey C.G. and Kavulla, this is Greg Schmidt from the Dems. Couple points-

C.G. - There is, admittedly, a serious progressive argument for getting rid of the filibuster altogether, but the only way to have that discussion is to get out of our present situation, where it's a matter of one party trying to force through a change in a very particular way just to get their judges in. It's been suggested, for instance, that Senate Dems and Repubs should agree, today, to end the filibuster in January 2009 - both parties agree to it now, not knowing who will hold the White House and Senate in four years. Unsurprisingly, that idea has been a non-starter.

Kavulla - Ha, yeah, part of all this is the trouble of communicating about an unbelievably esoteric issue in four word slogans (and to think people usually say Democrats are *too* nuanced). But beyond that, what the filibuster does do is force Republicans to go to Democrats every once in a while (or, in the abstract, forces the majority to go to a substantial minority) and try to get them on board - and the effect of that is greater debate, discussion, and collaboration, and less steamrolling of one party by the other. The possibility of a filibuster, before it happens, forces discussion and debate, where it might not otherwise have occurred, because it forces the majority to deal with the minority rather than ignore them.

"Minority" rights, incidentally, are important in a non-directly representative body like the Senate, where the 44 Democrats actually have more popular support behind them than the 55 Republicans. 2 million more Americans voted for Democratic Senators over the last three cycles than have voted for Republican Senators; in 2004, 41.6 Americans voted to send a Democrat to the Senate, compared to 38.1 million Americans who voted for a Republican.

Also, the filibuster can be a tool for making a case, and a means of convincing people on a public stage. Senate Democrats would *love* to actually get the chance to make a 25 hour speech on the floor of the Senate about their concerns about Bush's judicial nominations. The Senate Republican leadership isn't letting them, though, calling the whole thing off rather than lettting them make the public case against these judges (this, btw, might actually be a good change; force people to always actually filibuster, and make a public case for their side, rather than just have it be a procedural motion).

So, in sum, talking about how the filibuster forces greater debate, discussion, and bipartisanship, and how it could (if Republicans would let it) lead to a greater discussion of the issues on a public stage isn't a farce, though admittedly, the issue is a hugely complex one, and can't easily be summed up in a four word slogan. We had a lot of great conversations with people who stopped by the filibuster Tuesday about the complexities of the issue, which is a big part of what made the day so rewarding. And the very fact that we're now talking about the issue as a result makes it rewarding, too.


At 2:09 PM, Blogger kavulla said...

Not to nit-pick...but the way the nuclear option would unfold (if it does come about) inexorably involves some form of extended,
though not unlimited, debate.

The reason for this is that the first procedural step in the nuclear option would be a point of order on the grounds that further debate would not be germane, and would abrogate the Senate's constitutional role in considering appointments. (Maybe that would come after 30 hours of debate, perhaps 50, but in any case, it would require enough debate to make it seem that further talk was not germane). The point of order is sustained (by the V.P.), and it goes on and on from there.

Moreover, I have C-Span 2 turned-on right now and am witnessing a Robert Byrd speech (who's presently linking the hanging of Mordechai with some element of the judicial nominees battle), and I think his protracted bantering is a lovely emblem that senators can really debate at considerable length whenever they want to. Quoth Byrd: "Please don't Haymanize the United States Senate." They're never under any obligation to yield the floor (unless they've previously consented to a unanimous consent agreement).

Also, I think it's important to note that Bill Frist has once before attempted to force the Dems into a legitimate filibuster, when he called an around-the-clock 30-hour filibuster last year. (I remember then, like the blog's authors show now, unfunny titles abounded: mine was "filibust-it-out"). Anyways, at that time, we all got to hear the Dem senators express their outrage that they were actually being made to come to the floor and debate the issue - there was, they said, more important business to attend to. In any case, they were thoroughly uninterested in debating anything.

The real issue is not about legitimate debate or, preposterously, "free speech" as Robert Byrd keeps calling it, but rather about defeating nominees despite the opposition of a mere minority.

You make a good point about the nature of the Senate - although, really, there is no constitutional presumption that the Senate should be directly representative. Indeed, the fact that it was less representative of the two bodies was the founders' reason for empowering it as the legislative house that confirms nominees, ratifies treaties, and so on.

I do agree, Greg - and, btw, it's nice to e-talk to you - that it's great to have this debate. And I think the Harvard Dems' filibuster is a much better idea than some sort of protest where you tape your mouths shut, or a "die-in," or some other travesty. At least it gestures to something that's noble - even if the reality does not exist in our current Senate.

For the time, Byrd is still talking (he's been at it for just over an hour), and he's now quoting Tolstoy now: "how much land does a man need?"


At 11:01 AM, Blogger C. G. said...

Quick note thanking Greg for his great thoughts. Absolutely a determination about the filibuster should not be made in the current climate (though 2009 seems a little far out there). The point about minority interests in the Senate is also interesting.
My only concern, again, is that I really don't see that the filibuster is necessary to get out the full story on a particular legislative decision. Sure, because of the unusual and newsworthy nature of the filibuster, such a 25 hour speach would garner, the subject would end up with somewhat more news exposure, but I still don't see that exposure is what is missing here. Interested members of the electorate know the score with the Bush appointees and I'm not convinced that disinterested people will be substantially persuaded by a democratic Senator talking at them for a couple days.

In sum, it seems to me that filibuster is essentially a grand publicity stunt in a business that already has plenty of publicity.


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